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From Products Liability Law Daily, April 20, 2017

$55.3M judgment against Honda upheld in seatbelt design defect case

By Susan Engstrom

American Honda Motor Co., Inc. (Honda) was not entitled to a new trial following the entry of a $55.3 million judgment against it in a products liability action brought by a driver who sustained serious injuries in a rollover accident in which his seatbelt failed, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled. Contrary to Honda’s assertion, the trial court properly instructed the jury and precluded certain evidence with respect to the driver’s design defect and failure-to-warn claims (American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Martinez, April 19, 2017, Dubow, A.).

The driver asserted that he was wearing his seatbelt in a 1999 Acura Integra he was driving at the time of the accident and that during the rollover, his restraint system failed to provide "meaningful occupant protection." As a result of the accident, his spine was fractured and his injuries rendered him paralyzed with ongoing pain and suffering.

The driver filed suit against Honda, the manufacturer of his vehicle, in 2012. He asserted claims for strict liability and negligence, alleging that "[t]he vehicle was defective and unreasonably dangerous to the ultimate users, operators or consumers, including … [the plaintiff], when it was designed, manufactured, tested, assembled, marketed, distributed, and sold" by Honda. In support of this claim, the driver contended that the vehicle was not "designed, manufactured, tested, nor assembled with a restraint system that would adequately protect and/or restrain its occupants to its seats during an accident." He further alleged that Honda failed to adequately warn of the "hazardous conditions" described in the complaint.

Jury verdict. Following a jury trial in state court, a unanimous $55,325,714 verdict was issued in favor of the driver [see Products Liability Law Daily’s July 2, 2014 analysis]. The jury determined that the car’s seatbelt was defectively designed and that Honda failed to use a safer, alternative design and failed to provide adequate warnings to consumers about the Acura’s defective design.

Post-trial motion. Honda filed a post-trial motion, and while that motion was pending, the state’s supreme court issued a decision holding that in a design defect case, it should be the jury, not the trial court, that determines the threshold question of whether a product is "unreasonably dangerous" [see Products Liability Law Daily’s November 21, 2014 analysis of Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc.].

After hearing arguments addressing the issue of Tincher’s impact on the trial court’s evidentiary rulings and jury instructions, the trial court denied Honda’s post-trial motion and entered judgment in favor of the driver in accordance with the jury’s allocation of damages. The trial court subsequently affirmed its judgment [see Products Liability Law Daily’s September 22, 2015 analysis].

Impact of Tincher. The Superior Court rejected Honda’s assertion that the holding in Tincher required a new trial. Honda argued that, contrary to the holding in Tincher, it was the judge, and not the jury, who had engaged in a risk-utility test to determine whether the driver’s seatbelt restraint was "unreasonably dangerous." However, a portion of the jury charge relating to crashworthiness included a risk-utility analysis. Although the language in that charge—i.e., that there was an "alternative, safer, practicable design" for the seatbelt restraint system—was not precisely the language required for the risk-utility analysis, the charge was not fundamentally flawed because the portion of the charge to determine the "practicability of an alternate design" inherently required the jury to balance factors such as the cost of implementing the design against the relative safety of the alternative design. Thus, the jury could not have reached a verdict without conducting a risk-utility analysis.

Nor was Honda entitled to a new trial based on its assertion that the trial court had erroneously charged the jury with a vague "guarantor"/"any element" instruction. Tincher does not require that the trial court remove this language from a jury instruction. The Superior Court also rejected Honda’s argument that the trial court erred in preventing it from introducing evidence of its compliance with applicable federal regulatory and industry standards. Tincher does not affect the applicability of the supreme court’s previous rulings that this evidence should be excluded. Finally, any failure by the trial court to have complied with Tincher in instructing the jury on the driver’s failure-to-warn theory would amount to harmless error, as Honda could not demonstrate that it was prejudiced by the instruction or that the allegedly erroneous instruction was responsible for the verdict.

Crashworthiness. Honda also failed to establish that the trial court’s jury instruction on design defect was erroneous. The trial court made it clear to the jury that it was to focus its inquiry into Honda’s liability on the injury the driver sustained when the roof of his car hit the ground. Contrary to Honda’s assertion, the jury instruction adequately encapsulated the elements of the crashworthiness doctrine.

Heeding presumption. In addition, the trial court did not, in a vacuum, instruct the jury that it "must presume that [the driver] would have followed any adequate warning." The driver had testified, over Honda’s objection, that had there been warnings about the car not being able to protect him in a rollover, he would not have bought the car. Honda did not introduce any evidence rebutting this testimony. Thus, the heeding presumption instruction was appropriate, and Honda was not entitled to a new trial on that basis.

Alternative design evidence. Honda also claimed that it was entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) on the driver’s design defect claim because the only alternative seat belt design the driver presented to the jury was unlawful under federal regulations and, thus, infeasible. However, the parties presented conflicting evidence of the legality and practicability of the driver’s alternative design, and the jury, as factfinder, was free to believe all, part, or none of the evidence, and to determine which party’s witnesses and evidence it found more credible. Having properly done so, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Honda’s motion for JNOV.

Federal preemption. The Superior Court also determined that the driver’s design defect claim was not preempted by federal motor vehicle safety standards. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, although federal regulations provide manufacturers with choices between seatbelt designs, victims may still raise state court claims of defective design based on a manufacturer’s decision to install an allegedly less safe design.

Causation. In addition, the driver proffered sufficient evidence from which the jury could conclude that Honda’s failure to adequately warn him was the proximate cause of his injury. As mentioned previously, the driver had testified over Honda’s objection that he would not have purchased the vehicle if there had been warnings about it not being able to protect him in a rollover. Notably, Honda did not cross-examine the driver to determine whether, for example, he possessed the owner’s manual or had read it.

Damages. Finally, the Superior Court rejected Honda’s contention that the damages awarded by the jury were excessive. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the jury’s verdict did not shock its sense of justice, nor in declining to find that partiality, prejudice, mistake, or corruption influenced the jury in its determination of the award. The driver presented ample evidence of his injuries and how they impacted him and his family now and for the rest of his life.

The case is No. 445 EDA 2015.

Attorneys: William J. Conroy (Campbell Campbell Edwards & Conroy, PC) and James Michael Beck (Reed Smith LLP) for American Honda Motor Co., Inc. Stewart Jay Eisenberg (Eisenberg, Rothweiler, Winkler, Eisenberg & Jeck, PC) for Carlos Martinez.

Companies: American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews DefensesLiabilityNews EvidentiaryNews PreemptionNews DamagesNews MotorEquipmentNews PennsylvaniaNews

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