Missing Evidence Isn't Deal Breaker in Defective Design Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 28, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Lost evidence is more or less a deal breaker when litigating a case, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a football helmet at the root of a plaintiff's products liability claim wasn't necessary to prove a design defect in this game-changing opinion.

The case emerged from an injury that the Appellant A.K.W. sustained during a high school football scrimmage. A.K.W.'s coaches were trying him out at a new position during practice. On the final play of the scrimmage, A.K.W. stepped up to tackle the opposing side's quarterback and was aided in that tackle by two of his teammates.

All of the players in on the tackle landed on top of A.K.W.; his head hit the ground. At the conclusion of practice, A.K.W.'s right eye blurred, he stumbled into a friend, and then collapsed on the football field. The coaches removed A.K.W.'s helmet, which is now lost.

A.K.W. was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a carotid artery tear that has since rendered him partially paralyzed.

A.K.W.'s mother sued Riddell, Inc. and All American Sports Corporation (Defendants), alleging that there was a design defect in the helmet. In the district court, Defendants won their motion to dismiss the case on summary judgment.

In an unpublished opinion, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the claim.

A.K.W.'s claims arose under the Mississippi Products Liability Act, which requires a plaintiff to prove three elements in a design defect claim: the item was defectively designed, unreasonably dangerous, and the cause of the injury.

Here, defendants argued that A.K.W. couldn't prove a design defect because his helmet had been lost. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, ultimately persuaded by the A.K.W.'s expert witness, who testified that all Riddell helmets were defective per se because of the traditional discrete padding incorporated in the helmets.

The court found that A.K.W. sufficiently alleged the products liability criteria, and should be permitted to proceed to trial.

Do you agree with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the specific item involved in the incident is unnecessary to prove a case? Will juries be persuaded in design defect cases if they can't see the injury-causing evidence in question?

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