What is the "state of the art" defense?

The affirmative defense of “state of the art” applies when a defendant manufacturer could not have known about a particular danger or hazard in a product by using the scientific or technical knowledge available at the time the product was made or sold. A “state of the art” product is one that conformed to all safety and health standards required at the time it was made, even if research since that time has shown that the materials it was made of or the contaminants it releases are actually hazardous to human health.

Because it usually involves a dangerous or defective product that causes injury, the “state of the art” defense most often appears in product liability and toxic torts cases. The reasoning behind the defense is that, because the manufacturer could not have known about the defect or danger even by using the best scientific and technical knowledge available at the time, it is not appropriate for a court to hold that manufacturer liable for something it could not have known when it made the product.

For example, products containing asbestos and/or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once common, because both substances are highly resistant to fire. These products, including asbestos insulation and PCB-filled oil used in high-voltage electrical equipment were “state of the art” at the time the products containing them were made. The health dangers of coming into regular contact with broken asbestos fibers or PCB-filled oils were unknown when the products were offered for sale.

The “state of the art” defense often arises when an injured plaintiff points out a design defect in a product and argues that a safer alternative design was available. In these cases, a designer who knew or could have figured out a safer design but failed to do so may be liable if the plaintiff is injured by the actual defective design of the product, but she likely would not have been injured if the product were built according to the alternative, safer design. In the case of design defects, the “state of the art” defense argues that there was no safer alternative design when the product was made, and that it used the safest design that could have been created given the materials and knowledge available at the time.

For instance, suppose that a particular antique car was designed without seat belts, because at the time it was made, no material existed that was both strong enough and flexible enough to hold someone into the vehicle in case of a crash. At the time, synthetic fabrics like the nylon webbing used in today’s seat belts did not exist, and no other material had the strength to restrain the car’s passenger while also being flexible enough not to cause serious injury. The plaintiff, a collector of antique cars, is driving one of these particular seat-belt-less cars to an auto show when she is hit from behind by a bus. The plaintiff is thrown from the antique car and suffers serious injuries. The plaintiff sues the manufacturer and designer of the antique car, claiming that it should have created these cars with seat belts.

The defendant car company will likely argue that it could not have created the cars with seat belts because no appropriate material for seat belts existed when the car was made, and by the time proper material did exist, the company had stopped making that particular car (and started putting seat belts in the cars it was making). The defendant may also argue that, since the maximum speed any vehicle could reach at that time was only about 30 miles per hour, the risk of a high-speed collision like the one the plaintiff experienced didn’t exist, and so the car was made to the highest safety standards necessary for cars at that time.

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