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From Products Liability Law Daily, July 24, 2013

Jury properly instructed to consider circumstances of initial accident in SUV crashworthiness action

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A special interrogatory asking the jury to consider the context of an accident in which the driver and front seat passenger were injured and the two passengers in the rear seat were killed correctly stated the crashworthiness doctrine, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, ruled in a decision marked not for publication (Vogel v. Fernandes, July 19, 2013, Per Curiam).

Background. The accident occurred when a soft-top Geo Tracker being driven by Melissa Vogel suddenly turned sharply in front of a pick-up truck coming toward the Tracker in the oncoming lane of traffic. The two vehicles collided and literally were locked together from the force of the collision. As a result of the collision, the driver and her husband, who was seated in the front passenger seat, were seriously injured and their two children who were both seated in the rear passenger seat were killed. The driver and her husband brought separate lawsuits against the manufacturer of the Tracker, General Motors Corporation, alleging that the Tracker was defectively designed and that several alternative designs would have made the vehicle more crashworthy. Following a jury verdict of “no cause of action,” the driver and her husband appealed on the grounds that the jury instructions on crashworthiness were erroneous and that the trial judge erred in not granting their motion for a new trial. Specifically, the driver and her husband claimed that the trial court erred in submitting to the jury a special interrogatory requiring them to consider the circumstances of the accidents as the context for determining crashworthiness. Because there was no objection to the jury charge conference or to the language of the special interrogatory, the appellate court could not reverse the jury’s verdict in favor of the manufacturer unless the court’s instruction was “one which possessed a clear capacity to bring about an unjust result.”

Crashworthiness doctrine. “Crashworthiness” is defined as the ability of a motor vehicle to protect its passengers from enhanced injuries after a collision. The court went on to explain that a vehicle manufacturer has a legal duty to design and manufacture a reasonably crashworthy product and that, under the doctrine, the manufacturer was only liable for enhanced injuries—those injuries that would not have occurred absent the alleged defect. The court further instructed that, under a risk-utility analysis, the driver and her husband were required to prove that an alternate design was both technologically feasible and practical and that the alternate design would have reduced or prevented the harm alleged. The court also noted that, in strict liability cases, the focus was on the condition of the product and not on the user’s care in operating the product. The driver and her husband took the position that the court’s jury instructions and interrogatory question should have required the jury to determine whether the vehicle was crashworthy “without reference to any context,” and argued that the circumstances of the accident were foreseeable.

Alternate design requirement. The court, however, found that the burden on the driver and her husband was not to present an alternate design that would have made the vehicle marginally safer in some generic side-impact collision, but rather to present an alternate design that would have reduced or prevented the harm in this accident. Furthermore, the court stated that the mere fact that automobile accidents were foreseeable was not sufficient to create a duty on the part of the manufacturer to design its vehicles to withstand collisions “under any circumstances.” The manufacturer argued both that the vehicle was crashworthy and that the alternative designs proposed by the driver’s/husband’s experts were either ineffective or would not have improved the performance of the vehicle in this uncommon and severe accident involving greatly mismatched vehicles. Because the jury was presented with substantial expert testimony to support the manufacturer’s contention that the accident was extraordinarily unusual and severe and that the proposed alternative designs would not have effectively altered the outcome of the accident, the special interrogatory question was proper. In other words, the court opined, the jury could have and should have considered the circumstances of the accident including: the vehicle mismatch, the co-linear nature of the accident, the extremely high delta-v, and the absence of deflection.

The court concluded that the verdict was not contrary to the weight of the evidence, and that the jury charge correctly stated the applicable law and clearly instructed the jury on the application of the law to the facts.

The case number is: A-5578-07T3.

Attorneys: Timothy E. Burke (Garrity, Graham, Murphy, Garfoalo & Flinn) for Vogel. James N. Tracy (Tansey, Tracy & Convery) for General Motors Corporation

Companies: General Motors Corporation

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews EvidentiaryNews NewJerseyNews

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