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From Products Liability Law Daily, February 6, 2014

Ford’s own alternative design used to justify jury award in truck rollover ejection death; trial court erred in increasing jury award

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Evidence of a truck manufacturer’s own alternative design for a door-latch system was sufficient to satisfy the requirement under the risk-utility test of showing a feasible alternative design, the South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in upholding a jury verdict against the manufacturer. The court also determined that the driver’s estate had provided sufficient evidence of how and why the truck’s door latch system was defective to overcome the manufacturer’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. However, the court reversed the trial court’s decision to deny setoff and to increase the jury verdict from $300,000 to $900,000. (Riley v. Ford Motor Co., February 5, 2014, Few, J.).

Background. Benjamin Riley was killed when the Ford F-150 pickup truck he was driving was hit by another vehicle, causing his truck to leave the road and roll over. During the initial collision with the other vehicle, the driver’s side door of the truck opened; Riley was ejected through the open door and was killed. Riley’s widow brought wrongful death and survival claims against Ford Motor Company, alleging that the door-latch system on the truck was negligently designed and that Riley would not have died if he had not been ejected from the truck. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the estate for $300,000 in actual damages. The manufacturer moved for JNOV, arguing that the estate: (1) failed to present sufficient evidence of a design defect but relied on the “mere failure” of the door latch; (2) failed to prove the existence of a reasonable alternative design; and (3) did not present adequate expert testimony to prove a design flaw or a reasonable alternative design.

Reasonable alternative design. The estate’s mechanical engineering expert had testified that a cable-linage door-latch system, which was available at the time the pickup truck had been manufactured, was more crashworthy and would have prevented unwanted door openings in frontal collisions. According to the expert, during a frontal collision such as the one that occurred in this case, the force of the collision could cause “foreshortening” of a rod-linkage—or compression—door-latch system like the one used on the pickup. This in turn, compresses the rod as though someone had pulled the door handle, allowing the door to open without the handle actually being pulled. Because the cable-linkage system could not be pushed, thereby causing the latch to release, the cable-linkage system prevented the effects of foreshortening during collisions.

In addition to this testimony, Ford witnesses and internal documents showed that the F-150 pickup truck being driven by the descendent originally had been designed with a cable-linkage system. Ford’s internal documents also established that the company knew compression rod systems had a tendency to unlatch during crashes if the doors were crushed beyond a certain limits and that cable systems provided a solution to the problem. Although Ford claimed it made the design change as a result of a freezing problem in the cable-linking system, Ford’s own engineers admitted that the company had corrected the freezing cable concerns before the date the descendant’s truck was manufactured.

The estate also submitted two reports produced by Ford, both of which amounted to a risk-utility analysis of the cable-linkage system. The reports supported a finding that the increased costs of altering the design to incorporate a cable–linkage system would have been worth the resulting safety benefits. Thus, the estate had presented ample evidence of the existence of a reasonable alternative design to support a finding that the increased costs of the alternative were outweighed by the resulting safety benefits, thereby satisfying the risk-utility test.

The court went on to reject the manufacturer’s arguments that the estate failed to identify a design flaw in the product for which an alternative was offered and that the estate did not offer an expert who “championed” the cable-linkage system. The court stated that the estate satisfied the requirement of identifying a design flaw and showed how the alternative design would have prevented the unreasonably dangerous condition. Further, there was no requirement that an expert must “champion” an alternative design. Finally, the court found that the estate was not required to propose an alternative design that would have prevented the product from being unreasonably dangerous in all foreseeable collisions. Under the law of crashworthiness, the estate was required only to show that the rod-linking system created an unreasonable risk of injury that was foreseeable as an incident to the normal and expected use of the vehicle and that the cable system would have prevented the vehicle from being unreasonably dangerous. The estate’s evidence satisfied both these requirements, the court acknowledged.

Design defect. Ford also argued that the estate could not rely on the mere fact that the door opened during the accident as evidence of a defect. However, through its expert and Ford’s witnesses as well as Ford’s documents, the estate had presented extensive evidence of how and why the design to the door-latch in the F-150 was defective not because of the mere use of the rod-linkage system but because the system failed without even “stressing the latch.”

Damages issues. The court agreed with Ford that the trial court erred in refusing to grant a setoff to the verdict for the amount the driver of the other vehicle paid the estate to settle the claims against him. However, the court rejected the allocation of settlement funds which applied 80 percent of the funds to the survival claim for pain and suffering and only 20 percent to the wrongful death claim. Noting that Ford’s liability was limited to the enhanced injuries—the driver’s death—caused by the negligent design of the door—latch system, the court found that the minimal evidence of conscious pain and suffering weighed in favor of allocating the majority of the proceeds to the wrongful death claim. Therefore, the court found that a fair allocation of the settlement was 80 percent to the wrongful death claim and 20 percent to the survival action, with 80 percent of the settlement to be set off from the jury’s verdict.

The court also found that the trial court had no compelling reasons for increasing the jury verdict from $300,000 to $900,000. The estate presented undisputed evidence of economic loss in the amount of $228,605 plus a funeral bill for $10,196, which amounted to a total claim of economic loss of $238,801. The trial court had concluded that based on the compelling testimony of the driver’s family and friends, the award of $61,199 in noneconomic damages was not enough. The appellate court emphasized that the assessment of noneconomic damages was to be made by juries, not by judge’s and the trial court’s mere disagreement with the jury’s determination was not a compelling enough reason to grant additur.

The case number is 2012-207489 (Opinion No. 5195)

Attorneys: Curtis Lyman Ott (Gallivan, White & Boyd, PA) and Joseph Kenneth Carter, Jr. (Turner Padget Graham & Laney, PA) for Ford Motor Co. Ronnie Lanier Crosby, (Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth & Detrick, PA) for Laura Riley.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews DamagesNews MotorEquipmentNews SouthCarolinaNews

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