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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 14, 2014

Genuine issues send Alaska moose-auto collision suit back to trial court

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

In an action against the seller of a couple’s vehicle, which struck two moose on an Alaska highway, injuring the driver, the trial court applied an incorrect standard when it granted summary judgment for the seller, a car dealership, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled. The state high court also held that there were genuine issues of material fact making summary judgment inappropriate. Therefore, the trial court’s ruling was reversed and the matter was remanded for further proceedings (Christensen v. Alaska Sales & Service, Inc., October 10, 2014, Winfree, D.).

Background. Four years after Ramona Christensen and Jack Scott purchased a new car, Christensen was driving the vehicle on a highway in Alaska when she collided with two moose. Christensen, who could not remember many details of the collision, was the only witness to the accident and photographs showed damage to the car’s front driver’s side. In the days following the accident, the driver reported feeling light-headed and dizzy, her speech became disfluent and broken, and her gait became unsteady, causing her to fall repeatedly. She sought medical attention approximately a week after the accident to address her worsening symptoms. A neurologist examined her and ordered an MRI spectroscopy, which showed evidence of bilateral frontal lobe brain damage. Since 2008 numerous other physicians and psychiatrists have examined and treated Christensen for her continuing speech, short-term memory, and mobility problems.

Shortly after the accident, Scott took the car to a repair shop because he had suspected that Christensen’s seat belt failed to work properly during the crash. Prior to the accident, he had noticed that at times the seat belts would not retract or would lock when suddenly pulled forward. When Scott asked the repair shop to repair the driver’s seat belt, the repair shop responded that both the driver’s and passenger’s seat belts were not working properly. The repair shop contacted Alaska Sales & Service, but the seller refused to pay for seat belt replacements. Scott’s insurance company agreed to pay for the replacements, and the repair shop replaced both seat belts. The original seat belts, however, were not returned to Scott.

The couple filed suit against the car dealership that sold them the vehicle, alleging that the car’s seat belt failed to restrain the driver during the accident. The trial court granted judgment to the dealership, finding that “no reasonable jury could find that the Plaintiffs have proven that the seat belt … was defective.” On appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, the couple argued that the trial court applied an incorrect summary judgment standard and that genuine issues of material fact made summary judgment inappropriate.

Summary judgment standard in Alaska. The couple argued that the standard for a motion for summary judgment only required that they show they could present admissible evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact for trial. The dealership responded that the correct summary judgment test was whether “even if everything [Christensen and Scott] said was true … a reasonable jury … could find in their favor,” and that the trial court actually meant and used this standard.

The Alaska Supreme Court found that the couple was “more correct”—that a non-moving party did not have to prove anything to defeat summary judgment. However, the court also stated that a non-moving party could not create a genuine issue of material fact merely by offering admissible evidence. The evidence presented could not be “too conclusory, too speculative, or too incredible to be believed,” the court said. Also, the evidence “must directly contradict the moving party’s evidence.”

In clarifying and reaffirming Alaska’s “longstanding” standard for summary judgment, the state high court explained that Alaska Civil Rule 56 provides for judgment to be granted to a party where “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact” and “the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Once a party seeking summary judgment shows, through admissible evidence, that there are no genuine issues of material fact under dispute and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to put forth specific facts showing that it could produce “evidence reasonably tending to dispute or contradict the movant’s evidence,” thereby showing that a material issue of fact existed. The Alaska Supreme Court distinguished this standard from the federal standard, noting that Alaska Civil Rule 56 does not require a trial court to apply substantive evidentiary standards and in a 1988 case had rejected the federal reformulation of summary judgment, declining “to incorporate the applicable substantive evidentiary standard into [the] state’s summary judgment practice.” Since that case, the state supreme court stated that it has consistently interpreted Rule 56 to require only “a showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists to be litigated, and not a showing that a party will ultimately prevail” at trial.

In reference to the reasonableness standard, the court said that it required only that evidence proposed at trial must not be based entirely on “unsupported assumptions and speculation” and must not be “too incredible to be believed by reasonable minds.” After a court making reasonable inferences from the evidence finds in favor of the non-moving party, summary judgment would be appropriate only when no reasonable person could discern a genuine factual dispute on a material issue, according to the state supreme court. Further, the state’s summary judgment standard does not allow trial courts, on the limited evidence presented at the summary judgment stage, to make trial-like credibility determinations, to weigh trial-like evidence, or to decide whether a non-moving party has proved its case. Although a trial court initially must determine whether the evidence could be believed by a reasonable person, that decision is not based on whether the court actually believes the evidence or t believes the moving party had better evidence. The only questions to be answered at the summary judgment stage, the state supreme court said, are whether a reasonable person could believe the non-moving party’s assertions and whether a reasonable person could conclude those assertions created a genuine dispute as to a material fact.

Finally, the court stated that Alaska has a “lenient standard for withstanding summary judgment” that preserves the right to have factual questions resolved by a trier of fact only after following the procedures of a trial. The court remarked that the state’s traditional standard for summary judgment is “more protective” of the right to have questions resolved by a factfinder than is the federal standard.

Evidence created genuine issues precluding summary judgment. The court concluded after construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the couple that there were genuine issues of material fact with respect to both a seat belt defect and causation on the couple’s strict liability design defect claim. First, the Alaska Supreme Court found that evidence presented raised “a discernible dispute” as to whether the driver’s seat belt was defective at the time of the accident. The couple produced evidence indicating an unbroken chain of custody of the car and that the seat belts as originally sold had not altered in any way. Scott testified that before the accident he tested the seat belts by quickly pulling them forward and that sometimes the mechanism would not lock or retract the belts. He also said that after the accident the seat belts were replaced but the new seat belts failed in the same manner as the previous ones. The court found that this evidence supported the inference that the driver’s seat belt may not have worked as intended during the accident. Further, the driver stated that she was wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident. The absence of bruising from her seat belt after the accident supported an inference that it did not restrain her during the collision, and a red mark on her forehead supported the inference that her body went forward far enough to contact something in the car. This evidence supported the inference that the seat belt may not have restrained the driver as intended, the court determined.

The dealership argued that because the couple could not produce the seat belts in question, a description of the seat belt’s performance during the crash, evidence of occupant contact marks within the vehicle, or any police report describing the collision, summary judgment was warranted. However, the state high court concluded that although these “evidentiary gaps” could play a role in the resolution of the case at trial, the evidence in the record and reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence raised a genuine issue of material fact as to a possible defect in the seat belt.

In addition, the court found that evidence provided by the couple reasonably suggested (and was not too incredible to be believed) that the driver’s injury was caused by the alleged seat belt defect. The couple testified that after the accident, the driver had a mark on her forehead; she could not remember some of the events immediately before, during, or after the collision; and she had ongoing post-accident symptoms including dizziness, impaired speech, and difficulty walking. The couple also provided supporting evidence from medical specialists; in particular a neurologist noted that the driver’s symptoms started after the accident and there was “no other explanation” than that the accident had caused the driver’s brain injury. The court determined that the couple’s evidence and the reasonable inferences that could be drawn from that evidence supported their allegation that her symptoms resulted from the accident.

Therefore, the court concluded that taking all reasonable inferences from the couple’s evidence in their favor, genuine factual disputes as to defect and causation were reasonably discernable. Whether the couple ultimately would prevail at trial under the appropriate evidentiary standard was irrelevant because at the summary judgment stage Alaska courts do not weigh evidence or predict how a jury will decide the case. The state supreme court stated that the couple was not required to “prove” their case; rather, they were required to and did demonstrate the existence of genuine issues of material fact to be litigated at trial. Thus, the court held that the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for the dealership was error.

The case number is S-14963 (Opinion No. 6959).

Attorneys: Lee Petersen (Petersen Professional Corp.) for Ramona Christensen. Terrance A. Turner (Turner & Mede, PC) and Edward A. Gray (Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC) for Alaska Sales & Service, Inc.

Companies: Alaska Sales & Service, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorEquipmentNews AlaskaNews

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