When litigating a products liability case, it is important to determine whether any prior or subsequent accidents involving the same product have occurred. Such information is crucial to a plaintiff’s attorney because it assists the jury in deciding whether the product is dangerous or whether the manufacturer, retailer or seller had actual or constructive knowledge about a product’s dangers. Conversely, it is crucial that any party in a product’s chain of distribution know the products safety history in order to properly defend a lawsuit. Evidence of prior or subsequent similar accidents is admissible in personal injury cases, both under theories of negligence, and strict liability, once the appropriate foundation has been established. As a condition precedent to admissibility, the proponent must show that the prior or subsequent similar accident is: (1) relevant, (2) involved the same product, (3) involved the use of the product under substantially similar conditions, and (4) the other accident is not too remote in time to the accident in question. Chapman v. Loftin, 67 So. 2d 220 (Fla. 1969); Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. Fullmer, 227 So. 2d 870 (Fla. 1969); and Friddle v. Seaboard Coast Line Co., 306 So. 2d 97 (Fla. 1974). Prior or subsequent similar accidents can be relevant for several reasons, many of which depend on which side of the court room you are sitting on. If you are representing the plaintiff, prior or subsequent similar accidents are relevant because they can establish the dangerous character of the product or the defendant’s knowledge thereof. If you are representing any defendant in the product’s chain of distribution, then you, for obvious reasons, oppose the introduction of any prior or subsequent similar accidents involving the product at issue. However, if there are no prior or subsequent similar accidents then you want the jury to know about the product’s stellar safety history because such evidence can establish the non-existence of a defect or lack of knowledge. As to prongs two through four of the requisite foundation for prior or subsequent similar accident evidence, they are case specific inquiries which require the proponent to make an affirmative showing that the prior or subsequent accidents involved the same product, used under “substantially” similar conditions, and that the other accident did not occur too remote in time to the accident at issue. The rule establishing the admissibility of prior or subsequent similar acts dates back to Chapman v. Loftin, 67 So. 2d 220 (Fla. 1969). Chapman is the seminal Florida case dealing with similar accident evidence, whereby the Florida Supreme Court stated: It is well settled that evidence of prior or subsequent similar accidents at or near the same place are admissible if they are not too remote in time, for the purpose of showing the dangerous character of the place and defendant’s knowledge thereof. The Florida Supreme Court further entrenched this rule in Florida law by reaffirming it in both Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. Fulmer, 227 So. 2d 870 (Fla. 1969) and Friddle v. Seaboard Coast Line Co., 306 So. 2d 97 (Fla. 1974). In Friddle, the Supreme Court adopted Judge Mager’s dissent from the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Seaboard Coast Line R. Co. v. Friddle, 290 So. 2d 85 (Fla. 4th DCA 1974). Since the days of Chapman, Fulmer, and Friddle, Florida courts have consistently followed this rule. See Thursby v. Reynolds Metals Co., 466 So. 2d 245 (Fla. 1st DCA 1984) (products liability action involving aluminum can manufacturing machine); Emerson Elec. Co. v. Garcia, 623 So. 2d 523 (Fla 3d DCA 1993) (products liability action involving retractable ladders); Warn Industries v. Geist, 343 So. 2d 44 (Fla. 3d DCA 1977) (products liability action involving a winch). Wood v. Walt Disney World Co., 396 So. 2d 769 (Fla. 4th DCA) (refusal to admit in evidence reports of subsequent injuries sustained by persons and race cars at miniature raceway was error in action for injuries sustained by plaintiff while riding in a race care at Walt Disney World. Subsequent injuries were admissible and were relevant so as to establish dangerous condition of the raceway.)
When involved in a products liability case, obtain information through discovery as well as from applicable government agencies that establish the existence of prior injuries or problems with the product in question. Once you have obtained this information, make sure that you can establish the necessary foundation to use such evidence at trial. When defending a products liability case, consider establishing the foundation necessary to use the safety history of the product in order to establish the lack of danger or lack of knowledge of danger in the product.