California Appellate Court Addresses Products Liability Claim After Pet Store Purchase

Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a California product liability claim against a pet store company after a man’s son contracted a bacterial infection from a rat he purchased at the store. The 10-year-old kept his rat in a vivarium at his grandmother’s house, but he occasionally held the animals outside the cage. About two weeks after the purchase, the young boy developed a fever and collapsed. Tragically, he passed away at the hospital shortly after he arrived. An analysis of his blood and tissue samples revealed that the rat carried the bacteria that caused the boy’s infection.

After his son’s death, the plaintiff alleged, among other claims, that the pet store was strictly liable for injuries that stemmed from the sale of the pet rat. The trial court issued a jury instruction under an ordinary negligence theory based on failure to warn, manufacturing defects, and design defects. However, on appeal, the plaintiff contended that the jury should have received a consumer expectations test warning instruction.

In analyzing the case, the court explained that California products liability law applies in situations where the defendant supplies goods or products for the use of others. These defendants are liable to losses that purchasers, users, or bystanders suffer because of the product’s defects. Although California law does not address whether animals are a product for strict liability purposes, courts generally rely on supplemental guidance, which explains that pets carrying bacteria are not subject to design defect claims.

In this case, the plaintiff asked the trial court to instruct the jury on two tests to determine whether the rat suffered from a design defect—the risk-benefit test and consumer-expectations test. The court provided a risk-benefit instruction but declined to give a consumer expectation test instruction. The consumer expectations test is a way for a plaintiff to prove a design defect by showing that the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect the object to perform. Generally, the test evaluates a consumer’s minimum safety expectations, rather than the general public’s expectations. Here, the court concluded that because a pet rat carrying bacteria is not subject to strict liability or design defect claims, there was no need to evaluate whether the instruction was proper.

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