Plaintiffs Not Entitled to Jury Instruction on General Negligence Due to Lack of Specific Evidence

CALIFORNIA – Philip and Febi Mettias, husband and wife, both died of complications caused by mesothelioma. The decedents’ children (plaintiffs) filed suit against various defendants. As part of their allegations, the plaintiffs alleged Philip Mettias performed as many as 24 brake repairs with Bendix brakes, made by Honeywell and purchased at Pep Boys.

The jury returned a special verdict in favor of Honeywell and Pep Boys; the plaintiffs appealed on two contentions:

  1. The trial court erred in not giving general negligence instructions in addition to special negligence instructions, and
  2. Certain misstatements by the court in reading the instructions to the jury prejudiced the outcome.

The appellate court affirmed.

The appellate court opinion summarized the evidence presented regarding Philip Mettias’ brake repairs on the family car, and the laundry performed by Febi Mettias. Although the jury found that Honeywell and Pep Boys products had potential risks, these risks did not pose a substantial danger. Further, the products were not defectively designed, and the defendants were not negligent.

The plaintiffs argued that since they pursued two theories of negligence against Pep Boys – as a supplier and as being generally negligent – they were entitled to jury instructions on both. The court disagreed. Although litigants are entitled to instructions on every theory advanced, the only viable theory against Pep Boys was that it violated its duty of due care as a supplier of Bendix brakes. The evidence supported instructions based on Pep Boys’ duty of care as a supplier. The court quoted prior case law in that “the trial court may not force the litigant to rely on abstract generalities, but must instruct in specific terms that relate the party’s theory to the particular case.” Any evidence supporting a general theory of negligence was presented in a general fashion and in conclusory terms. The plaintiff did not articulate a cognizable theory based on the evidence under which Pep Boys owed a duty of care that was not encompassed by the jury instruction regarding suppliers. In fact, the plaintiffs did not attempt to articulate the specific evidence supporting the general negligence jury instruction until their reply brief. Even if the trial court instructed regarding both jury instructions, it was not reasonably probable that a different result would have been reached.

The plaintiffs’ argument that the trial court made misstatements was also without merit.

The case summary is provided with permission from Westlaw here.