What is a State of the Art Product and What are the Implications in Product Liability Law?
In product liability design defect cases, the key question is whether the design specifications of a given product create an unreasonable risk (thereby making the product “defective” in legal terminology). Answering that question often requires looking beyond the product’s specification and seeing how the defendant’s design compares with other competing designs and other available technology.
In this context, manufacturers often seek to defend their product designs on the ground that the designs conform to the “state of the art” and that the manufacturer therefore could not have made the product any safer in light of the knowledge available at the time the product was designed.
The term “state of the art” “has been variously defined to mean that the product design conforms to industry custom, that it reflects the safest and most advanced technology developed and in commercial use, or that it reflects technology at the cutting edge of scientific knowledge.” In determining whether a given product is “state of the art,” courts generally look to whether a product incorporates “the best technology reasonably feasible at the time the product was manufactured.” Evidence of the existing level of technology, the lack of other advanced technology, and the product’s safety record may be presented by a defendant manufacturer to prove that a product is state of the art, and therefore support the defendant’s defense.
The concept of state of the art often intersects with a related concept of “safer alternative design.” Many jurisdictions have taken the position that a product is defective if it could have been made safer by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design. If a plaintiff can show that an alternative design could have been practically adopted at the time the product was designed and if the omission of such a design rendered the product not reasonably safe, the plaintiff establishes a defect. But when the defendant demonstrates that its product design was the safest in use at the time the product entered the market, it may be difficult for the plaintiff to prove that an alternative design could have been implemented. Likewise, it may be difficult for a plaintiff to show that a reasonable safer design could have been adopted by the defendant when that design has not been adopted by anyone else in the industry. The defendant is therefore allowed to introduce evidence regarding industry practice that bears on whether an alternative design was feasible. Industry practice may also be relevant to whether the omission of an alternative design made a product unreasonably unsafe.
Some states have codified the state of the art defense, giving manufacturers a defense to design liability. Here in Illinois, there is no such affirmative defense available to defendants. But evidence of the existing state of the art may still come into play in Illinois because defendants are permitted to offer state of the art evidence, as a part of the risk-utility analysis, to attempt to rebut a plaintiff’s argument that the existence of a feasible alternative design shows a product was not reasonably safe.
So how can plaintiffs defend against a potential “state of the art” defense? Case law out of Indiana may provide a roadmap. As mentioned above, Indiana recognizes that a defendant may be entitled to a presumption that a given product was not defective if the product was designed in conformity with the state of the art. The Indiana Court of Appeals has refused to require a trial court give defendants a favorable state of the art jury instruction when defendants failed to show that a design feature was the best available technology in terms of safety.
In Wade v. Terex-Telelect, Inc., 966 N.E.2d 186, 194 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012) the Indiana Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff and refused to give a state of the art jury instruction to the manufacturer of a utility truck bucket. In Wade, the issue was whether the design of the utility bucket that caused the injury to a utility lineman was defective because the bucket did not contain an interior step for exiting the bucket. Defense engineering witnesses testified that the bucket design was utilized by other manufacturers during the time period and complied with industry regulations. The court refused to give the manufacturer the benefit of the state of the art defense jury instruction, however, because the manufacturer had not shown that a utility bucket without an interior step was the “best technology reasonably feasible” to prevent utility workers from falling when they exited the bucket. The court found that the manufacturer had not met its burden of showing that buckets without interior steps are safer than those with such steps. Indeed, Indiana courts have found that for a defendant to gain the state of the art defense jury instruction, they may have to demonstrate that that there was no better way to make the product safer.
For plaintiffs in states that have a state of the art defense, this guidance from Indiana may prove useful. Defendants should only be able to raise this defense when they can prove the specific design feature alleged to have caused the injury was safer than other possible designs and there was no better way to make it safer—i.e. only when they prove it is truly “state of the art.”
 Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability §2 (3rd 1998).
 See Indianapolis Athletic Club Inc. v. Alco Standard Corp., 709 N.E.2d 1070, 1074 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999).
 See Wade v. Terex-Telelect, Inc., 966 N.E. 2d 186, 192 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012).
 See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability §2 (3rd 1998).
 See, e.g. Ind. Code §34-20-5-1(1) (conformance with the generally recognized state of the art at the time the product was designed is an affirmative defense to an action based on strict liability in tort).
 See, e.g., Bianco v. Hultsteg AB, No. 05 C 0538 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9284, at *14-15 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 5, 2009).
 See Connelly v. Gen. Motors Corp., 540 N.E.2d 370, 376 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989).
 See Ind. Code §34-20-5-1(1).
 A second appellate panel agreed with this ruling and took it one step further, explaining that not only was a “state of the art” instruction improper, but the evidence relating to safety standards was not relevant. Terex-Telelect, Inc. v. Wade, 59 N.E.3d 298, 305 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016).
 Id. at *193.
 Id. at *194.
 See Weller v. Mack Trucks, Inc. 570 N.E.2d 1341, 1344 (Ind. Ct. App. 1991).