Atkins v. American Motors Corp.

Decision Date21 May 1976
Citation335 So.2d 134
Parties19 UCC Rep.Serv. 756 Carol Powers ATKINS, as Administratrix of the Estate of James Samalone Atkins, Deceased v. AMERICAN MOTORS CORP. et al. SC 1488.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Cloud, Berry, Ables, Blanton & Tatum and Loyd H. Little, Jr., Huntsville, for appellant.

Lanier, Shaver & Herring, Huntsville, for appellees.

JONES, Justice.

Does a complaint state a valid claim in tort where it alleges:

(1) the defendant, as manufacturer, proximately caused the plaintiff's intestate's death by selling a product in a defective condition which was unreasonably dangerous to him as its ultimate user;

(2) the defendant was engaged in the business of selling such product; and

(3) it was expected to, and did, reach the user without substantial change in the condition in which it was sold?

The answer is 'Yes.' The order of dismissal of Count 7, which substantially averred the elements set out above, is reversed and this cause is remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion. 1


This appeal tests only the validity of the trial Court's ruling on the pleadings. There was no trial. The only 'facts' are those contained in the plaintiff's complaint which are summarized as follows:

James Samalone Atkins was operating a 1970 Gremlin automobile in Huntsville on December 6, 1974, when a Lincoln Continental driven by Roland Dean Brown, struck him from the rear. The impact caused the passenger compartment of Atkin's vehicle to fill with burning gasoline and Atkins suffered severe burns from which he died several hours later.

In summary, plaintiff's complaint, averring the foregoing facts and elements of tort liability, contends that American Motors' product was defective in manufacture and design in that the gas tank was located in such a manner as to be immediately and directly available to penetration and puncture, and the shell and bumper were both inadequate to provide any protection to the gasoline tank from an external force.


Our holding rejects the adoption of the pure strict tort liability theory urged by the plaintiff-appellant. On the other hand, it is not an adherence to the traditional negligence theory of tort liability urged by the defendant-appellee. Therefore, we deem it appropriate to preface our analyses and conclusions with certain initial observations.

The approval of the complaint containing essentially the language of the Restatement of Torts 2d, § 402A, is not the equivalent of adoption in toto of the Restatement's concept of strict tort liability in products liability cases. We hold that a complaint substantially following the Restatement's elements of liability will withstand a motion to dismiss. Otherwise stated, 'negligence' is not an essential averment in the statement of a claim. 2 Contrary to plaintiff's 'economic' or 'social' theory of recovery, however, we retain the 'fault' concept based on a standard of conduct causally related in fact to the defective condition of the unreasonably dangerous or unsafe product. As we shall later develop, the practical distinction, then, between our holding and the Restatement is that our holding will allow certain affirmative defenses not recognized by the Restatement's no-fault concept of liability.


Strict tort liability in the area of products liability law arose to overcome two obstacles to consumers' recovery against suppliers of defective chattels. These obstacles were (1) the intricacies of the law of sales (such as privity, disclaimer of warranty, and notice of breach) which thwarted consumer recovery under the theory of warranty, and (2) the difficulty of proving standards of care and negligence within the complex manufacturing system which brings most consumer goods to the market place. The history of the development of products liability law reflects society's attempt to balance its need for industrial expansion with the desire to protect the consuming public from unreasonably dangerous products.

The first landmark case in the field is Winterbottom v. Wright, 10 M. & W. 109, 152 Eng.Rep. 402 (1842), which imposed the privity requirement of contract law upon a negligence cause of action to protect the emerging industrial revolution from the 'most absurd and outrageous consequences' of an avalanche of tort actions This obstacle to warranty recovery prevailed until 1960 when Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, 32 N.J. 358, 161 A.2d 69 (1960), held both the manufacturer and the retailer of the defective automobile liable for personal injury on an implied warranty theory without the necessity of privity of contract. After the Henningsen case, all that was required to establish strict tort liability in products liability law was to abandon the old warranty nomenclature and define the elements of the new tort. These final steps were taken by the American Law Institute in § 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts, and were first followed by Justice Traynor, speaking for the California Court in the celebrated case of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, 59 Cal.2d 57, 27 Cal.Rptr. 697, 377 P.2d 897 (1962). Greenman, although the plaintiff's only statement of claim was breach of warranty, dismisses warranty terminology, saying that the progression of case law in the area of products liability makes 'clear that the liability is not one governed by the law of contract warranties but by the law of strict liability in tort.'

against negligent manufacturers. For nearly 75 years after Winterbottom, the privity requirement in negligence cases was attacked and weakened with exceptions for 'imminently' and 'inherently' dangerous products until finally in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050 (1916), the exceptions had consumed the rule, and the privity requirement was abandoned in negligence based products liability cases. While MacPherson was a major advance in consumer protection, the second obstacle to recovery--the difficulty of proving a manufacturer's lack of due care--still plagued plaintiffs. The only course available to injured consumers who could not meet the negligence burden of proof was the theory of implied warranty, but the warranty theory was encumbered with the traditional contract requirements and defenses such as privity.

Justice Traynor then defines the new tort action:

'To establish the manufacturer's liability it was sufficient that plaintiff proved that he was injured while using the Shopsmith in a way it was intended to be used as a result of a defect in design and manufacture of which plaintiff was not aware that made the Shopsmith unsafe for its intended use.'

With § 402A of the Restatement and the Greenman opinion, both obstacles to consumer recovery for personal injuries in products liability cases were overcome. The obstacle of privity and contractual defenses was banished by changing the nature of the cause of action from contract to tort, and the obstacle of proving lack of due care was eliminated from the new tort action by removing the requirement that the product's defect resulted from the seller's negligence. Since Greenman, the concept of strict liability in tort has been accepted and applied in more than thirty states. 'The transition from industrial revolution to a settled industrial society' 3 was complete.


While many may applaud the efforts of these courts to make the law more viable and responsive to the realities of modern society, in retrospect, our analysis of this progression causes us to take exception to two fundamental aspects of the Restatement's concept of strict liability:

(1) the no-fault precept which imposes liability equally on all 'sellers' without regard to culpability causally related in fact to the defective condition of the product, and

(2) the practical abolition of the distinction between the remedies of tort and contract.

In reply to defendant's insistence that tort law must retain the moral culpability concept, the plaintiff urges that moral culpability Is a vital and fundamental element of a cause of action in strict tort liability. The moral wrongdoing, says the plaintiff, lies in the distribution of an unreasonably dangerous product which exposes members of society to an unreasonable risk of harm.

This puts the test of culpability in the quality of the product rather than in a standard of conduct resulting in the quality of the product; and it fails to distinguish between one whose conduct has contributed to its defective condition and one whose conduct has not so contributed. Indeed, candor requires a forthright admission that culpability in the traditional sense is lacking and any justification of the new tort theory must be founded on broader moral notions of consumer protection and on economic and social grounds, placing the burden to compensate for loss incurred by defective products on the one best able to prevent the distribution of those products.

For example, to hold liable in tort a retailer of a packaged product, purchased from a reputable manufacturer without knowledge of its unsafe condition, for the mere selling of a defective product is to fully equate for liability purposes a tort remedy with a breach of warranty remedy, the effect of which is to destroy the distinction between the two. We reject this concept.

To be sure, a close analysis of the Restatement, and its exhaustive Comment to § 402A, makes clear that its drafters have no quarrel with those who denominate the Restatement's concept as breach of warranty rather than tort. So, strict liability of the Restatement variety is not tort in the traditional sense; rather, the Restatement fashioned a new cause of action which is more properly titled by its own text, 'STRICT LIABILITY--Special Liability of Seller of Product for Physical Harm to User or Consumer.'

Incidentally, as we have observed, the California Court in Greenman followed...

To continue reading

Request your trial
193 cases
  • Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. Malone
    • United States
    • Texas Supreme Court
    • August 25, 1998
    ...sense compensatory." Gulf, Mobile & Ohio R.R. Co. v. Williams, 251 Ala. 516, 38 So.2d 334, 336 (1949); see also Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134, 144 (Ala.1976) ("Damages [in wrongful death cases] are to be awarded that will punish the tortfeasor for the act and deter him and ......
  • Spain v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.
    • United States
    • Alabama Supreme Court
    • June 30, 2003
    ...liability.' 553 S.W.2d at 940. "See, generally, Casrell v. Altec Industries, Inc., 335 So.2d 128 (Ala.1976); and Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala.1976). "Whether this product was unreasonably dangerous, therefore, is not a question properly addressed in an action brought ......
  • In re Rezulin Products Liability Litigation
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of New York
    • March 1, 2001
    ...attack on the fraud claim as having been extinguished by the death of plaintiff's decedent is without merit. 50. Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134, 139 (Ala.1976). 51. See Turner v. Azalea Box Co., 508 So.2d 253, 254 (Ala.1987) (AEMLD applies only to manufacturers and sellers);......
  • Wagoner v. Exxon Mobil Corp.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Louisiana
    • August 24, 2011
    ...Doctrine (AEMLD) in the two companion cases of Casrell v. Altec Industries, Inc., 335 So.2d 128 (Ala.1976), and Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala.1976). The Alabama Supreme Court held that to establish liability under the AEMLD, a plaintiff must show that 1) “he suffered i......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 firm's commentaries
  • Product Liability Update For Retailers: Inherit The Whirlwind
    • United States
    • Mondaq United States
    • March 30, 2012 opportunity to inspect the product that was superior to the knowledge or opportunity of the consumer. Atkins v. American Motor Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala. 1976). However, this protection is also coming under attack in the minority of states that apply it. The Alabama Supreme Court recentl......
5 books & journal articles
  • Interpretation of the Statutory Modification of Joint and Several Liability: Resisting the Deconstruction of Tort Reform
    • United States
    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 16-01, September 1992
    • Invalid date
    ...Sellers of Defective Products, 95 Dick. L. Rev. 287, 294-95 (1991) (same). 676. 258 So. 2d 242 (Miss. 1972). 677. Id. at 246. 678. 335 So. 2d 134 (Ala. 679. Id. at 138. 680. Id. at 139. 681.202 So. 2d 492 (La. Ct. App. 1967), aff'd, 211 So. 2d 637 (La. 1968). 682. Id. at 497. 683. Id. 684. ......
  • Beyond Workers' Compensation: Workplace Comparative Fault & Third-party Claims
    • United States
    • Georgia State University College of Law Georgia State Law Reviews No. 20-2, December 2003
    • Invalid date
    ...Elec. Co. v. Flippo, 705 A.2d 1144, 1155-56 (Md. 1998). [23]. See Saint, 646 So. 2d at 568. [24]. See, e.g., Atkins v. Am. Motors Corp., 335 So. 2d 134, 137 (Ala. 1976). [25]. Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 402A (1965); see infra text accompanying notes 44-45. [26]. Atkins, 335 So. 2d a......
  • Walls v. Alpharma: is the learned intermediary doctrine the right cure for pharmacists in Alabama?
    • United States
    • Jones Law Review Vol. 9 No. 1, January 2005
    • January 1, 2005
    ...into any contractual relation with the seller. RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS [section] 402A (1965); see also Atkins v. Am. Motors Corp., 335 So. 2d 134 (Ala. 1976) (adopting the elements of [section] 402A as a prima facie case in product liability (11) The Restatement (Second) of Torts [sec......
  • The Limited Scope of Contributory Negligence in Aemld-crashworthiness Cases
    • United States
    • Alabama State Bar Alabama Lawyer No. 73-6, November 2012
    • Invalid date
    ...585 So. 2d 1336, 1339 (Ala. 1991).4. General Motors Corporation v. Edwards, 482 So. 2d 1176 (Ala. 1976).5. 335 So. 2d 128 (Ala. 1976); 335 So. 2d 134 (Ala. 1976).6. See Edward C. Martin, Alabama's Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (AEMLD), 133 AM. J. TRIAL ADVOC. 984, 990-94 (1990)......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT