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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 19, 2014

Crashworthiness doctrine applied to claim that truck rear guard defects caused death of driver who rear-ended the truck

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Finding that the crashworthiness doctrine would be applied by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, the federal district court in Puerto Rico refused to summarily relieve the designers-manufacturers of the dump body of a truck from liability for the death of a motorist in an under-ride accident. The court also refused to summarily dismiss the motorist’s negligent design claim. (Quilez-Velar v. Ox Bodies, Inc., May 16, 2014, Carreño-Coll, S.).

Background. Maribel Quilez-Bonelli (Quilez) was killed when the hood of her 2004 Jeep Liberty under-rode a dump truck that was stopped in the left lane of an expressway while municipal employees did maintenance work in the area. Quilez apparently realized at the last minute that the truck ahead of her was not moving and she swerved to avoid a collision. However, the driver’s side of her Jeep impacted the truck and the truck’s bumper penetrated the driver’s side roof and windshield of the Jeep, striking Quilez in the face and head. Relatives of Quilez filed a product liability action against Ox Bodies, Inc. and Truck Bodies & Equipment Int’l, Inc., the companies that designed and manufactured the dump body of the truck, claiming that the company failed to properly design or manufacturer the dump truck’s rear guard. The defendants moved for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the crashworthiness doctrine did not apply in Puerto Rico and that Quilez’s negligent design claim was barred by Puerto Rico law.

Application of crashworthiness doctrine. The “crashworthiness” doctrine—pursuant to which manufacturers have a strict liability duty to design their products to be safe in the event of foreseeable accidents, including collision, even when the defect was not the cause of the accident— has not been adopted explicitly by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. However, the federal court noted that Puerto Rico’s high court has consistently relied upon California Supreme Court precedent in deciding strict products liability cases and, therefore, the federal court concluded that the crashworthiness doctrine does exist under Puerto Rico law.

The federal court went on to distinguish the facts in the Larsen case—which gave birth to this doctrine (Larsen v. Gen. Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968))—and those in the case at bar, noting that the Larsen plaintiff had been injured by a defect in the vehicle in which he had been riding, while Quilez was killed by an alleged defect in the truck into which she crashed. The defendants argued that the difference was dispositive, claiming that a majority of states follow the precedent set by the Illinois Supreme Court in Rennert v. Great Dane Ltd., 543 F.3d 914 (7thCir. 2008), in holding that a manufacturer owed no duty to protect those who collide with its vehicle. The federal court rejected the defendants’ interpretation of the case law in this area, finding instead that based on its own research, not a single post-Larsen case from outside of Illinois applied the Rennert rule.

The court then explained that Larsen has been interpreted to mean that manufacturers must be held to a reasonable duty of care in the design of their vehicles in accordance with the state of the art to minimize the effects of the foreseeable hazards of collisions and impacts. The court noted that rear-end collisions are common and the danger of under-ride accidents was well known to truck manufacturers and had been for decades.

Furthermore, the court saw no reason to draw a distinction between injuries to occupants of defective vehicles and injuries to occupants of other vehicles. The better rule, according to the court, and the one favored by the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability was to hold manufacturers to a reasonable duty of care in the design of rear bumpers so as to minimize the effects of accidents to those who collide with its vehicles. Therefore, the court refused to grant the manufacturers-designers’ motion.

Negligent design. In support of its motion for summary judgment on the negligent design claim, the defendant cited several precedents in which courts found no duty on the part of manufacturers to make their vehicles safe for third parties to strike from the outside. However, the court opined that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court would not follow these precedents because the courts failed to explain their decision to draw an “arbitrary line” between those inside and outside the vehicle despite the fact that certain types of accidents concerning both groups were reasonably foreseeable. Furthermore, the cases cited by the defendants were not persuasive authorities on under-ride cases and two of the cases were decided before their respective jurisdictions adopted the Larsenrule. Finally, these same two cases presented peculiar factual scenarios.

Given that foreseeability is the “linchpin” for determining duty in a negligence claim and having determined as part of the crashworthiness analysis that accidents involving other vehicles were foreseeable, the court could not determine, as a matter of law, that Quilez’s negligent design claim was barred by Puerto Rico law.

The case number is 3:12-cv-01780-SCC.

Attorneys: David W. Roman (Ubarri & Roman) for Berardo A. Quilez-Velar. Arron Nesbitt (Taylor Anderson, LLP) and Carlos B. Salup (Gaebe Mullen Antonelli & DiMatteo) for Ox Bodies, Inc. and Truck Bodies & Equipment Int’l, Inc.

Companies: Ox Bodies, Inc.; Truck Bodies & Equipment Int’l, Inc.

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