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From Products Liability Law Daily, September 15, 2014

Lack of fuel shut-off switch not shown to have caused driver’s death

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

The mother of a driver who suffered a fatal brain injury in a multiple-impact accident involving a Mack truck could not show that the lack of a fuel shut-off switch in the car caused the fatal injury, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held in affirming a district court decision. Without the testimony of an expert on causation, she was unable to show that the fatal injury was the result of subsequent impacts rather than the initial collision with the truck (Hughes v. Kia Motors Corp., September 12, 2014, Tjoflat, G.).

Background. Allene Hughes was driving her Kia Optima in Tennessee when she was involved in a side-impact collision with a Mack truck. Following the impact, her car subsequently collided with two parked cars, a fence, three metal awning support posts, a flag pole, and eventually a house. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and died the next day. The front driver’s airbag was missing because it had not been replaced after being removed following a previous accident in which it had deployed.

Patricia Hughes, her mother, filed a wrongful death suit in Georgia state court against Kia Motors Corporation and Kia Motors America, Inc. (Kia), asserting claims for strict liability and negligence. She alleged that Allene’s death was caused by Kia’s failure to equip the car with a fuel shut-off switch because this type of switch would have caused the car to come to a stop sooner, resulting in fewer collisions during the accident. Kia removed the case to federal court. Kia then moved to exclude the testimony of Dr. Joseph Burton, who was Hughes’ medical expert on causation, arguing that his testimony was not the product of reliable methodology and did not fit the evidence. Kia also moved for summary judgment, asserting that Hughes could not prove that the collision with the Mack truck was not the cause-in-fact of her death. The district court granted both motions, and Hughes appealed.

Expert testimony. The district court’s decision to exclude Burton’s opinion that the driver would not have sustained the fatal injury if the Optima had a fuel shut-off switch was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit. Burton testified that she could have sustained a brain injury during the initial impact with the Mack truck and exacerbated that injury in subsequent impacts; alternatively, he opined that she could have suffered the fatal brain injury when her head hit the steering wheel and/or instrument panel during the additional impacts that resulted from her car not having stopped in a timely manner.

Burton explained that he used the scientific method to reach his conclusion, but while he testified that the amount of the intrusion into the vehicle at the driver’s side A-pillar and the velocity of the door were the most important factors in his evaluation, he did not explain how these factors were relevant or how he used them to reach his conclusion. He was unable to rule out the collision with the Mack truck as the cause of her fatal injury, he said that he did not have enough information about the collisions with the two parked cars to determine whether they caused the fatal injury, and he was unable to offer an opinion on whether the impacts with various curbs actually caused the collision with an interior structure and the injury or whether the collision with the house was sufficient to cause the fatal injury. It was reasonable for the district court to have questioned the reliability of his opinion given the vagueness with which he described his methodology and his inability to opine how various impacts would have affected the driver.

Causation. The district court’s ruling that there was no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the lack of a fuel shut-off switch caused the driver’s fatal injuries was also upheld by the Eleventh Circuit. Applying Tennessee law, the Eleventh Circuit found that general causation principles apply for any case in which a claim for enhanced injuries has been made, meaning that the plaintiff has the burden of proof of showing that the injuries were actually and proximately caused by the defective product. Whether the lack of a fuel shut-off switch caused the additional impacts that were the “but-for” cause of the driver’s fatal injury depended on whether she sustained the fatal injury from the impact with the Mack truck. However, because Burton’s opinion that the lack of a fuel shut-off switch caused the fatal injury was excluded, there was no evidence of actual causation. Hughes did not show that the impact with the truck had not caused the fatal injury or that the lack of the switch, instead of some other cause—such as the missing air bag—was the actual cause of the fatal injury. Therefore, there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding actual causation.

The case number is 13-10922.

Attorneys: Mario Bernard Williams (Williams Oinonen, LLC) for Patricia Hughes. Andrew T. Bayman (King & Spalding, LLP) for Kia Motors Corp.

Companies: Kia Motors Corp.

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