Colorado Court Conducts “Substantially Similar” Test in Carseat Case

On June 10, 2005, a four-month-old child, identified only as “A.H.” was injured when the car in which he was riding was T-boned by another vehicle.  A.H. was riding in an Evenflo Discovery Model 316 car seat at the time.  During the accident, the seat detached from its base,and was found in the rear cargo compartment after the crash. Following the accident, A.H.’s father sued Evenflo in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado.  Evenflo filed a motion in limine, seeking to exclude evidence of car seat models not involved in the accident.  The Court issued its opinion on October 31, 2012. See Hadjih v. Evenflo Company, Inc., No. 10-cv-024345-RBJ-KMT, 2012 WL 5363332 (D. Col. Oct. 31, 2012).

The major issue: the plaintiff’s desire to introduce evidence of testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the Evenflo 390/391, the model that succeeded the 316.  During testing, the 390/391 detached from its base during side-impact crashes.  No testing had been done on the 316, because it was designed and manufactured before testing by the NHTSA started. Evenflo sought to exclude evidence of the 390/391 generally, and specifically, with regard to the testing.  In both instances, the Court undertook a “substantially similar” analysis.  As the Court noted, “in products liability actions, substantially similar acts or occurrences are often permitted to demonstrate the existence of a defect, to prove notice, or to refute testimony given by defense witnesses.”  A higher degree of similarily is required if the plaintiff is using the other product to show causation than if the plaintiff is simply using the product to show notice.  In this case, the plaintiff was using the 390/391 model to prove the defect, so a higher degree of similarity was required.

The Court held that both general evidence of the 390/391 model, and evidence of the testing involving the 390/391 model, could be used by the plaintiff, and denied Evenflo’s motion in limine.  In both cases, the focus of the court remained squarely on the plaintiff’s theory of the case. The plaintiff’s theory of the defect in the 316 model was that the plastic latching mechanism did not work properly.  Evidence in the case tended to show that the two carseat models had nearly identical latching mechanisms; in fact, the carseats could each latch into the bases designed for either model.  Other differences between the models, the court ruled, would go to the weight of the evidence, but not its admissibility.

In terms of the specific testing by the NHTSA, Evenflo argued that the testing itself involved crashes that were substantially dissimilar to the accident at issue in the case and, therefore, the testing results should be excluded.  Again, the court focused on the plaintiff’s theory, which was that the car seat carrier dislodged from its base because of intertial forces.  The court held that the difference in delta-v forces, the weight of the child/dummy, and other differences went to the weight that the jury will give to the evidence, and let the evidence in.

We will watch to see if this case continues to trial and try to determine what impact these rulings have on the judgment, if any, rendered in the case.  This is a good refresher on the “substantially similar” test, at least in terms of how Colorado interprets it.

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