Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp. is a products liability case. In short, after one of her daughters was killed by smoke inhalation after accidentally starting a fire while playing with a Scripto lighter, Calles sued Scripto, claiming that the lighter was defective.
Illinois law allows plaintiffs in products liability cases to prove a product is "defective" in one of two ways: the "consumer-expectation test" or the "risk-utility" test.
The first test focuses on what an ordinary, rational consumer would expect a product to do when that product was used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable way. Because it was Calles's daughter who accidentally started the fire with the Scripto lighter, Calles and Scripto disagreed whether the "ordinary" user was an adult or a child.
The court sided with Scripto:
we hold that the ordinary consumer of a lighter, such as the Aim N Flame here, is an adult - the typical user and purchaser. Therefore, the expectations regarding the Aim N Flame's use and safety must be viewed from the point of view of the adult consumer.
Adults typically buy lighters for adults to use, not for children to use. Therefore, the use of the lighter should be viewed from the point of view of an ordinary adult, who would buy the lighter intending for adults to use it.
At trial and on appeal, Scripto argued that the lighter was so "simple" in design and the danger so "obvious" that Scripto shouldn't be held liable for making an "unreasonably dangerous" lighter. While the trial court agreed, the appellate court did not.
Calles could also have held Scripto liable under Illinois's "risk-utility" test by showing that the lighter was "unreasonably dangerous," or more dangerous than it is useful. One way to pass this test is to show that the maker (here, Scripto) could have used a different design that was less dangerous, but they didn't.
Scripto argued that it had no responsibility to use a less dangerous design, because the lighter's design was so "simple," and the danger so "open and obvious," that Illinois law allowed Scripto to simply sidestep liability.
The court disagreed, stating that "open and obvious" risk could be one factor considered in determining whether a product was dangerous, but it couldn't be the entire consideration. Other factors, like available substitute products, options that made the product safer (like child-safety locks or switches on lighters), and the presence of warnings or instructions, could also be part of the analysis.
At trial, both Calles and Scripto tried to address some of the additional factors the court listed for the "risk-utility" test. For instance, Calles submitted evidence that child-resistant lighters exist and that non-childproof lighters are more dangerous than childproof lighters. Scripto submitted evidence that its lighters were safer than matches.
Both sides also admitted to facts that did not help their respective cases. Calles admitted that she knew a lighter was especially dangerous in the hands of a child. Scripto admitted that it had been involved in at least twenty-five other lawsuits for essentially the same problem.
Courts that weigh products liability cases often look not only at whether alternative designs are available, but also the position of the product's designer/manufacturer (here, Scripto). What did Scripto know about the danger its lighters posed? What did it know about alternative designs? How much more does Scripto know about these things than the average buyer of lighters would know?
Generally speaking, courts are less likely to rule for the plaintiff in products liability cases if the plaintiff admits they understood the risk of the harm that actually occurred. Here, Calles admitted she knew it was dangerous for children to play with lighters. However, courts are more sympathetic toward plaintiffs who try to mitigate that risk. Here, Calles said she stored the lighters on the highest shelf in her kitchen in order to try to keep them away from her children.
Likewise, courts are less likely to rule for the defendant in products liability cases if the defendant admits they knew of cases where the product caused similar types of harm. Here, Scripto admitted it knew that other people had also been injured by its lighters - the company had faced at least twenty-five other lawsuits over the same problem. However, courts are more sympathetic toward defendants who show that their product is safer than other alternatives, that it came with adequate warnings, and that there was no reasonable way to add whatever safety features the plaintiff claims the product should have had. Here, Scripto submitted evidence of all three.
An argument could be made either way. Calles's argument has the stronger emotional impact: One of her children is dead because this lighter lacked safety features. Scripto, however, has a strong logical argument that its lighters can't be made any safer - and that while the death of Calles's child is tragic, it is not the kind of thing Scripto can be held liable for under Illinois law.