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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 29, 2013

Contradictory findings lead to reversal of damage award against GM

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A jury finding that an automobile manufacturer had been negligent was inconsistent with its finding that the vehicle performed as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected and, therefore, judgment against the manufacturer was reversed by a California court of appeal in an opinion not certified for publication (Boekamp v. General Motors, LLCOctober 28, 2013, Irion, J.).

Background. The purchaser of a new 2005 Chevrolet Corvette brought negligence and strict liability claims against General Motors, the manufacturer of the vehicle, alleging that a defect in the design of the vehicle caused it to overheat after normal and reasonable use and that this failure caused a fire that originated in the vehicle, which was parked in the garage adjoining their residence. The ensuing fire destroyed the purchaser’s home. Following the trial, the jury returned a special verdict on liability in which it responded “Yes” to the question of whether the manufacturer had been negligent; but responded “No” to the question as to whether the Corvette failed “to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected when used or misused in an intended or reasonably foreseeable way.” The manufacturer appealed the entry of judgment against it on the jury’s liability and damages verdicts, arguing that the inconsistent verdicts on negligence and strict liability could not be reconciled.

Inconsistent verdicts. Based on the pleadings, evidence, jury instructions, and arguments of the purchaser’s attorney, the negligence and strict liability theories on which the purchaser had proceeded to trial both presented the same defect in the design of the vehicle’s electrical system as the cause of the fire that destroyed the residence. According to the court, when liability depended on proof of a design defect, no practical difference existed between negligence and strict liability, i.e., the claims merged. Therefore, the jury could not conclude that the manufacturer negligently designed the vehicle and at the same time conclude that the vehicle was not defective under the consumer expectation test, which was the only strict products liability test on which the jury had been instructed. The court rejected the purchaser’s procedural arguments, as well as the claim that the jury could have concluded that the Corvette performed safely when used without agreeing that the same car was not defective while parked in the garage. The purchaser offered no evidence of a design defect concerning the size, speed, acceleration, or handling of the Corvette, nor did they argue that the manufacturer should be held strictly liable for a defect that made the vehicle unsafe while being driven. The only alleged defect was the existence of an electrical defect in the steering column motor that caused the motor to overheat and ignite. The purchaser’s argument that the jury could have found that the vehicle had been negligently manufactured, which would not have been inconsistent with its finding of no design defect was rejected because the purchaser presented no evidence that the vehicle had been manufactured negligently.

Res ipsa loquitur. Finally, the purchaser could not rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to establish a defect because the evidence did not establish all the conditions necessary for application of the doctrine. In fact, the evidence at trial showed that the condition of the Corvette had changed substantially in the more than four years between the time of purchase and the fire.

The case number is: D062390.

Attorneys: Madison Harbor (Madison Harbor, ALC - Law Firm) for Herbert Boekamp. Daniel Sharp (Crowell & Moring) for General Motors, LLC

Companies: General Motors, LLC

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews CaliforniaNews

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