West Virginia’s Strict Liability System in Defective Products Cases – O’Bryan v. Synthes

West Virginia’s strict liability system in products liability cases is intended to hold manufacturers responsible for any defective products that they produce, regardless of whether the company knew that the product wasn’t up to snuff at the time it left the warehouse. As a recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia makes clear, these cases often come down to a battle of experts. They focus largely on if, when, and how the particular product became defective.

scalesO’Bryan sued Synthes, Inc., alleging a number of products liability claims stemming from a medical device designed and produced by the company. It all stemmed from an April 2011 accident in which she fractured her leg by falling down a flight of stairs. After consulting with a doctor, she attempted to let the fracture heal on its own. O’Bryan wore a brace on the leg for two or three months and completed physical therapy, but the fibula fracture didn’t mend. An orthopedic surgeon in October 2011 performed surgery on O’Bryan to place a 1-mm-thick Synthes plate into her leg.

The plate was designed and produced by Synthes, Inc. A package containing the plate included a number of warnings, indicating among other things that it “cannot withstand activity levels and/or loads equal to those placed on normal healthy bone.” The warning explained that the device was designed to hold a fracture in place until it healed, and it said that the fixture could break due to fatigue if the healing didn’t happen in a timely process. It further instructed medical professionals using the device as follows: “The patient should understand that a metallic implant is not as strong as a normal, healthy bone can and will fracture under normal weight bearing or load-bearing in the absence of complete bone healing.”

O’Bryan later said her doctor told her that the leg could bear her full weight and instructed her to continue wearing the brace during the day. She said she felt a “pop” when she got out of bed a few days after the surgery, and she began to experience sever pain. It was determined that the fixture device had shattered. O’Bryan underwent a second surgery in which the fixture was removed. Her leg fracture eventually healed by February 2012.

Synthes filed a motion for summary judgement on O’Bryan’s claims, alleging that she’d failed to show that the device was the proximate cause of any injury that she suffered and didn’t establish that the device was defective or unreasonably dangerous. An expert retained by O’Bryan had testified that the device hadn’t lasted as long as expected because of a crack in the device that was there before the surgery. Synthes, in response, argued that the expert was qualified to opine about whether there was a pre-existing crack and how long the device should have lasted.

The District Court disagreed. As the Court explained, product makers are strictly liable for any defective wares that they produce. “A manufacturing defect can be proven when a product comes off the assembly line in a substandard condition,” the Court explained. In this case, O’Brady’s expert testified that the device was likely cracked prior to use as a result of poor hole drilling during the manufacturing process. Although Synthes argued that the device ultimately splintered due to O’Brady’s misuse of the product, the Court said there was enough evidence on each side to proceed to a full trial on the issue.

If you or a loved one has been injured by a defective product or in an accident, the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our West Virginia personal injury lawyers have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

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