Undisclosed-Motion for Summary Judgment: Defectively Designed Toy Reasonably Foreseeable Unintended Use

F&F# 86115A


Summary: This products liability case involved a toy figure of a cartoon character with a detachable spinning blade. In cartoons and videos, the character threw the blade as a weapon. A child did the same with the toy figure’s blade, striking the plaintiff in the eye. The Fitzgerald Law Firm, P.C., persuaded the Court of Appeals that the plaintiff presented issues of fact whether the toy was defectively designed and whether throwing the blade was a reasonably foreseeable unintended use.

Facts: The six-year-old plaintiff incurred serious and permanent eye injuries when her eight-year-old neighbor threw a detachable part of a toy at her. The toy part, a “spinning laser blade” with eight points around its circumference, was part of a robot-like plastic figure called “Voltron-Defender of the Universe. The manufacturers of the toy, LJN Toys, Ltd., did not include in the toy’s packaging any warnings or directions for recommended use of the toy or any of its detachable parts. In the Voltron cartoon series at the time, Voltron threw the “spinning laser blade” at his opponents, one of whom had his ears trimmed.

Holdings of the Courts Below: Plaintiffs alleged that the toy, which was marketed for children age four and older, was defective because it was improperly designed and because it was marketed without adequate warnings. The Supreme Court, Bronx County, denied LJN’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint as a matter of law.

The Appellate Division, First Department modified the Supreme Court’s order to the extent of striking the third cause of action in the complaint claiming punitive damages, but otherwise affirmed. The First Department quoted Court of Appeals cases in noting that as a general rule, summary judgment should not lie against plaintiffs pleading negligence, design defect, and manufacturer’s failure to warn. The First Department noted that plaintiffs had met their burden of establishing the existence of a genuine factual controversy. In particular, the plaintiffs had submitted affidavits from various experts (including one from the Toy Safety Task Group of the American Society of Testing and Materials) asserting that the Voltron cartoons could influence a child to emulate behaviors such as throwing a blade, and that designing the toy with a detachable blade posed unreasonable risks and dangers to the toy’s targeted users.

The First Department dismissed remaining arguments by the defendants. It held that even if the defendants complied with certain Federal toy safety regulations, such compliance would not preclude a finding of negligence. In addition, the court responded to the defendant’s invoking of the doctrine of “obvious risk” by maintaining that “the extent to which a risk may be deemed to have been obvious . . . must be reserved for the trier of the facts.” 146 A.D.2d at 171.

By permission of the Appellate Division, First Department, the defendant appealed. The following question was certified by the Appellate Division: “Was the order of this Court, which modified the order of the Supreme Court, properly made?”

Discussion: The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the Appellate Division. It held as follows: “A manufacturer who sells a product in a defective condition is liable for injury which results to another when the product is used for its intended purpose or for an unintended but reasonably foreseeable purpose [cites omitted]. Plaintiff has submitted expert evidence that, based upon customs and standards in the toy safety community, the part was defective because detachable from the doll and that throwing it was foreseeable because of the extensive television exposure in which Voltron did so. This was sufficient response to defendant’s motion for summary judgment to establish questions for the jury of whether the product was defective and reasonably safe for its intended use or a reasonably foreseeable unintended use.” 75 N.Y.2d at 852.