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From Products Liability Law Daily, April 1, 2019

Woman injured by sharp metal pieces under seat of new SUV can proceed to trial against automaker

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

Issues of fact remained regarding whether the alleged protrusions were a manufacturing defect.

The owner of a new Mazda SUV who had lacerated her thumb when reaching under the vehicle’s passenger seat to retrieve her cellular phone stated valid claims against the automaker for manufacturing defect and breach of express warranty, a New York federal court determined, nevertheless granting summary judgment favoring Mazda on her design defect and breach of implied warranty claims (Berger v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., March 30, 2019, Brodie, M.).

A woman who sustained a deep cut to her thumb on a piece or pieces of sharp metal protruding from the underside of the front passenger seat of her new 2015 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring SUV filed suit against Mazda Motor of America, Inc., alleging causes of action for manufacturing and design defects as well as breach of the express and implied warranties of merchantability. Mazda moved for summary judgment on all claims, after which a federal magistrate judge recommended that the automaker’s motion be granted in part and denied in part.

Magistrate’s findings. The magistrate recommended that summary judgment be denied as to the manufacturing defect claim because genuine disputed issues of fact existed as to whether the seat was "physically flawed, damaged, or incorrectly assembled," at the time of its manufacture.

With respect to the design defect claim related to the passenger seat, however, the magistrate recommended that summary judgment be granted in Mazda’s favor because the owner failed to establish the existence of an alternative design. The magistrate also recommended that the motion be denied as to the breach of warranty claim related to the seat, noting that a jury should decide whether the purported condition of the seat interfered with the owner’s ability to operate her vehicle safely and in a typical manner.

Mazda’s objections. The automaker objected to the conclusion in the magistrate’s Report and Recommendation that genuine issues of fact remained with respect to the manufacturing defect and breach of warranty claims pertaining to the SUV owner’s hand injury. According to Mazda: (1) the owner failed to present facts showing that the alleged sharp metal pieces were unintended as opposed to part of the vehicle’s design; (2) the alleged sharp metal pieces did not interfere with the owner’s ability to drive the vehicle; and (3) the express warranty could not be triggered in the absence of a manufacturing defect.

Manufacturing defect. The automaker argued that the magistrate misapprehended the nature of the manufacturing defect claim and that the vehicle owner failed to present evidence that the sharp metal pieces presented a departure from the intended design of her SUV. The owner responded that her deposition testimony and her expert’s inspection of the vehicle provided sufficient facts to support her claim that a manufacturing defect existed on the underside of the front passenger seat and that she had been injured as a result of that defect.

The court noted that Mazda did not dispute that one of its dealers had made repairs to the front passenger seat about one month after the owner had cut her thumb, pointing to a repair invoice from the dealer stating that tape had been installed "over sharp arm" under both the driver’s and front passenger’s seats. In that regard, the fact that repairs had been made to the passenger’s seat of the SUV lent support to the owner’s argument that the seat, as manufactured, deviated from its intended design, the court remarked.

Construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court found that the evidence raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the SUV owner’s injury had been caused by a manufacturing defect in the vehicle. Consequently, the automaker’s summary judgment motion was denied as to the owner’s manufacturing defect claim.

Breach of warranty claims. Mazda argued that summary judgment was warranted as to the owner’s breach of the implied warranty of merchantability claim inasmuch as it could not be disputed that the alleged sharp metal pieces under the passenger seat did not affect the SUV’s drivability or the owner’s ability to use it safely for transportation. Conceding that argument, the owner maintained that her vehicle’s manufacturing defect had caused her physical injury and that she had been deprived of the enjoyment of her new car.

Because the owner did not provide any evidence that would allow a reasonable juror to conclude that the alleged defect would affect the drivability or usefulness of the at-issue SUV, summary judgment was granted as to the owner’s breach of implied warranty claim. However, Mazda’s summary judgment motion was denied as to her breach of express warranty claim because there were disputed issues of fact as to whether the passenger-side seat suffered from a manufacturing defect.

The case is No. 16-CV-1835 (MKB) (CLP).

Attorneys: Marshall B. Bellovin (Ballon, Stoll, Bader & Nadler, PC) for Sara Berger. Howard F. Strongin (Strongin Rothman & Abrams, LLP) for Mazda Motor of America, Inc.

Companies: Mazda Motor of America, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews ExpertEvidenceNews NewYorkNews

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