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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 30, 2018

Strict liability, negligence claims against Ford in rollover accident case dismissed for lack of causation evidence

By Miriam A. Friedman, J.D.

In the absence of excluded expert testimony, an individual who was injured when the car in which he was a passenger rolled over failed to provide evidence that a defect in either the vehicle’s roof or its handling and steering had been a substantial factor in causing his injuries, a federal district court in California found. The court applied the same reasoning to dismiss the passenger’s related negligence claims and, therefore, granted the auto manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment (Rhodehouse, v. Ford Motor Co., October 29, 2018, Mendez, J.).

The passenger was traveling in a Ford F-350 truck when it hit a patch of ice, causing it to leave the roadway and, ultimately, roll over. The roof crushed into the passenger compartment, and the passenger sustained serious neck and back injuries. He sued Ford Motor Company, alleging two causes of action: (1) strict products liability for alleged design defects in the truck’s roof (roof strength) and its handling and steering (rollover propensity); and (2) negligence for the same alleged defects. The manufacturer moved to exclude expert testimony and for summary judgment on both claims. In a separate order filed concurrently, the court granted in part and denied in part the motion to exclude.

Design defects. As a preliminary matter, the court found that because the alleged defects were "beyond the common experience of ordinary consumers when viewed in the context of the specific circumstances," the "consumer expectations test" did not apply, and expert testimony was required. With regard to the actual claims, the court noted that because the passenger had admitted that he was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident, as a matter of law, no defect in the seatbelt could have caused his injury.

Turning to roof strength, the court found that the manufacturer’s expert had provided "a reliable opinion as to the lack of defectiveness of the roof design in light of the relevant factors." Because the court had excluded the passenger’s expert testimony as to alternative roof design, the court concluded that the passenger failed to "raise a dispute of material fact that there was a feasible, safer, alternative design for the roof." With regard to rollover propensity, although the court found the passenger’s expert testimony as to the concept of static stability factor (SSF) to be reliable, the expert himself testified that the SSF was not a defect and "did not bother him." Moreover, not only did the court exclude the expert’s opinion that the injury resulted from the vehicle’s rollover propensity, the passenger admitted that the accident may not have occurred had the road not been icy or had the driver engaged four-wheel drive. As such, the court concluded that "the undisputed facts, taken together with the exclusion of [the] expert testimony, [did] not provide a sufficient basis for a jury to find that the alleged rollover propensity of the truck was a substantial factor in causing [the] injury."

Negligence. Finally, based on the arguments presented, the court concluded that its findings as to the strict products liability claim applied "with equal force" to the passenger’s negligence claims. Therefore, the claims were dismissed.

The case is No. 2:16-cv-01892-JAM-CMK.

Attorneys: Michael Barr Cogan (Law Office of Michael Cogan) for Derek Rhodehouse. Amir M. Nassihi (Shook Hardy and Bacon LLP) and Bradley W. Petersen (Slattery Petersen PLLC) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews CausationNews ExpertEvidenceNews CaliforniaNews

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