Stilwell v World Kitchen Inc: Ontario Court of Appeal Affirms Deference to Jury Awards
In Stilwell v World Kitchen Inc, 2014 ONCA 770, the appellants, World Kitchen Inc. (“World Kitchen”) and Corning Inc. (“Corning”) appealed a jury award of $1,157,850 for negligence relating to product liability. In the result, the Court of Appeal affirmed that a significant degree of deference is owed to civil jury awards.
The lawsuit arose from an incident in which a Dutch oven being washed in a sink by the respondent, Lanny Stilwell, shattered in his hands. As a result of the shattering, Mr. Stilwell received severe injuries to his wrist, lost a large amount of blood and required several surgeries. He could no longer work after the incident, and his wife Moira Neale had to quit her job to look after him.
The lawsuit for breach of warranty and negligence against World Kitchen was commenced in 2002 and Corning was added as a defendant in 2008. At trial, the jury found World Kitchen and Corning 75% at fault for not properly warning the respondents in this appeal about the dangers associated with the pot, while Mr. Stilwell was held to be 25% contributorily negligent. As such, the jury awarded Mr. Stilwell $1,132,850 in damages, $25,000 of which was for aggravated damages. In addition, Ms. Neale was awarded $25,000 for lose of care, guidance and companionship.
The appellants raised three issues on appeal:
- Was the claim against Corning barred by the limitation period?
- Should the jury’s finding of liability be set aside for lack of evidence?
- Should the jury’s aggravated damages award be set aside or added to the general damages award?
Was the claim against Corning barred by the limitation period?
Corning argued that the trial judge erred in his ruling that the lawsuit against them was not statute barred. In contrast, the respondents argued that the trial judge properly stated and applied the test regarding the limitations periods. The limitations defence centres on when the respondents should have known Corning was a potential defendant and whether the case was brought within the six-year limitation period.
As Corning conceded that the trial judge was correct in articulating the correct legal test, it could dispute only the trial judge’s factual findings. The Court of Appeal observed that the trial judge found a “good deal of support for the plaintiffs’ position that, in these early stages of the investigation and litigation, the available information pointed to World Kitchen as the entity likely to bear responsibility, if any, for the Visions cookware” (para. 25). Justice Hourigan, speaking for the Court of Appeal, rejected Corning’s appeal on this ground, holding that that trial judge was open to come to this conclusion and that there was no palpable and overriding error.
Should the jury’s finding of liability be set aside for lack of evidence?
On the second issue, the appellants argued that the jury’s verdict should be set aside as there was no evidence to support that their failure to warn caused or contributed to the incident. In contrast, the respondents argued that the jury’s conclusions were supported by evidence and should not be interfered with. The appellants submitted that “since the jury did not find any negligence in the design or manufacture of the pot and there was no evidence of scratches, a warning to discontinue use of the pot if it was scratched would have had no effect” (para. 30) and that a warning would not have changed the respondents’ behaviour.
In dealing with this argument, Justice Hourigan noted that much deference is owed to civil jury verdicts and they should only be interfered with when “it is so plainly unreasonable and unjust that no jury reviewing the evidence as a whole and acting judicially could have arrived at the verdict” (para. 33). Moreover, a jury’s verdict should be given a “fair and liberal interpretation” (para. 34), with the understanding that jury members are not legally trained. Applying these principles, Justice Hourigan held that the jury was entitled to make its finding of liability. For example, he found evidence to support the jury’s inference that the respondents would not have bought the pot had they been warned properly. In sum, he stated: “While a different jury, or a judge sitting alone, may have drawn different inferences and reached different conclusions, I am not satisfied that the verdict is plainly unreasonable and unjust…” (para. 51).
Should the jury’s aggravated damages award be set aside or added to the general damages award?
On the last ground of appeal, World Kitchen and Corning argued that the trial judge erred in his instruction to the jury regarding aggravated damages. The respondents, while conceding on this issue, argued that the instruction error only had the effect of the jury increasing its award. As such, they argued that the $25,000 awarded for aggravated damages should be subsumed into the general damages award. Justice Hourigan rejected the respondents’ submission, stating that their argument was “entirely speculative” (para. 55) and that it was not possible to know that the jury, if properly instructed, would have increased the general damages award by $25,000.
All in all, the appellants were successful on the issue of aggravated damages, but the other grounds of appeal were dismissed. This case exemplifies and affirms the deference owed to a civil jury’s findings of liability and of damages, provided that the jury was properly instructed. The case should also be taken as a cautionary message to manufactures that they must properly undertake their duty to warn consumers of any potential defects in their manufactured products, even where there is no direct evidence showing that the warning would alter consumer behaviour.