Alabama Legislature Passes Product Liability and Expert Testimony Reform Bills

06.08.11

Recently, two proposed bills have passed Alabama's legislature and are awaiting Governor Bentley's signature. If they are passed, they will substantially and immediately reform Alabama's current law on their respective subjects.

1. Products Liability Reform - SB184/HB251

This bill would significantly restrict product liability actions against distributors that are not manufacturers by amending Ala. Code Sections 6-5-501 and 6-5-521 and creating "The Alabama Small Business Protection Act."  Currently, in a product liability suit, Alabama retailers, wholesalers, dealers, sellers or distributors may be sued under various tort and warranty theories, including the Alabama Extended Manufacturer’s Liability Doctrine (based on Rest. 2d of Torts § 402A) even though they did not participate in the manufacture or design of the product.  The new law would prevent such suits unless (1) the distributor is alleged to have acted in ways outside Alabama’s current "no causal relation" ("closed box") defense (by altering the product or contributing to its alleged defect) or (2) the plaintiff alleges in good faith that he has been unable, through exercise of due diligence, to determine the identify of the manufacturer. In the latter instance, the distributor may affirm at the time of its Answer that it did not manufacture the product whereupon the plaintiff is required to “voluntarily” dismiss the claim against the distributor.

Beyond the obvious effect of protecting innocent product sellers, the law would reduce the instances in which plaintiffs are able to defeat removal to federal court by suing a seller that is a resident of Alabama. It will be for federal courts, however, to determine if the dismissal of an allowed claim against a seller is truly “voluntary” for purposes of removal (a case not initially removable can become removable if a non-diverse defendant is “voluntarily” dismissed within one year).

Application of this bill is prospective and will only apply to actions filed on or after the effective date of the act.   

2. Expert Testimony Reform - SB187/HB251

This bill would impose the Daubert standard for admissibility of scientific expert testimony, replacing Alabama’s nominal adherence to the Frye standard.   Alabama's adoption of Frye has evolved over the years and is in some respects more restrictive than Daubert, while in other respects it is not.  It will be interesting to see if the courts of Alabama will interpret the new statute in ways that make it more difficult, or less, to gain admission of questionable scientific evidence.

This bill has no effect on the Medical Liability Act of 1987 (Ala. Code Sections 6-5-540, et seq.).  It will apply prospectively to all actions filed after the effective date of the act and all proceedings pending upon the effective date of this act “if it is just and practicable” to so apply it.

For more information and to read the bills, click here.