Montana Enhanced Injury Case Places Evidence of Seat Belt Usage Directly at Issue

In an enhanced or second injury case, the plaintiff claims that although the initial incident or accident caused him to suffer only minor injuries, the defective design and/or manufacture of a particular product caused him to suffer additional injuries.  The theory is that but for the negligent design or manufacture, the plaintiff would have walked away with only minor injuries.

This was the plaintiff’s theory of the underlying case at issue in Stokes v. The Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court, — P.3d —-, 2011 WL 3304510 (Mont. August 1, 2011).  A man named Peter Carter was killed after being involved in a car accident during which the vehicle he was driving rolled over.  Plaintiff Stokes filed a wrongful death and survival action on behalf of Carter’s estate against the car’s manufacturer (Ford), the rental car agency that rented Carter the vehicle (Overland West, Inc.) and the driver of the other car involved in the accident (Todd Durham).   Durham admitted that he caused the initial accident.  Stokes’ theory against the other two defendants was that “the initial impact caused only minor injuries, but the seat belt in the vehicle slackened and spooled out during the rollover, allowing Carter to be partially ejected from the vehicle and causing his fatal head injury.”  The case was brought on theories of negligence and strict liability against both defendants.

The fact that the plaintiff pleaded both negligence and strict liability in the case was problematic for the trial court, which didn’t think a jury was smart enough to distinguish between the two of them.  In Montana, evidence of seat belt use (or lack thereof) is admissible in product liability claims, but not in negligence claims.  So, “The court thus informed Stokes that if he planned on using evidence of seat belt use or non-use in his strict liability claims against Ford and Overland, he would be required to drop his negligence claims against all three defendants.”

So much for alternative pleading in Montana.

Stokes then petitioned the Montana Supreme Court for supervisory control, based on the fact that, basically, he should be permitted to assert both causes of action.  First, the Court considered whether or not the case was appropriate for the exercise of supervisory control.  Deciding in the affirmative, the Court then turned to the issue of whether evidence of seat belt use was precluded in either the strict liability or product liability cause of action.

The applicable Montana statute, The Montana Seat Belt Use Act, states that evidence of compliance or non-compliance with the mandatory seat belt law is not admissible “in any civil action for personal injury or property damage resulting from the use or operation of a motor vehicle,” and failure to comply with the seat belt use law does not constitute negligence.

Ford contended that all evidence of such use or non-use should be excluded, or that at the very least, such evidence should be inadmissible in the negligence cause of action.  Stokes had a different argument, modeled on the theories underlying negligence and product liability principles.  Citing a prior case, he argued that the statute “bars proof of seat belts in a claim for negligence,” where the focus is on the parties’ conduct, but “does not apply to product liability claims,” where the focus is on the condition of the product.

An interesting argument in most cases.  In this case, however, as the Court pointed out, the seat belt was placed directly at issue by the plaintiff’s claim that the seat belt system was defective, and caused the enhanced injury of the decedent after the initial accident.

With this in mind, the Montana Supreme Court held that evidence relating to Carter’s use of a seat belt was not prohibited under either cause of action, in the context of its bearing on the condition of the seat belt restraint system.  The Court did hold, however, that a limiting instruction for the jury was appropriate “to ensure the evidence is used only for this purpose.”

The Fight Over The Crashworthiness Test in Florida

We here at Abnormal Use have blogged about a few cases involving the Crashworthiness Doctrine, otherwise known as enhanced injury cases.  As we have discussed before, the theory is that although a plaintiff might have suffered a finite number of injuries and damages because of an initial accident or occurrence, his injuries are exacerbated, or he suffers additional injuries, because of some product defect.  More recently, we discussed the concept of comparative fault as it pertains to these cases in the context of a Montana Supreme Court decision.  Read our prior post here.

This week, we were alerted by fellow blawg The Product Liability Monitor to a fight that has been occurring in Florida over this doctrine, which started when the Florida Supreme Court issued its decision in D’Amario v. Ford Motor Co., 806. So. 2d 424 (Fla. 2001) [PDF].  Like the Montana case, the dispute centers on this idea of comparative fault.  A prior post by The Product Liability Monitor summarized the facts and procedural posture of D’Amario as follows:

In D’Amario, the plaintiff was riding in a 1998 Ford Escort when it crashed into a tree.  After hitting the tree, the car burst into flames.  While the driver – who was intoxicated at the time – was killed, the plaintiff survived but suffered serious injuries.  Subsequent to the crash, the passenger’s mother sued on behalf of her son, alleging that the car’s relay switch failed to disengage the fuel pump on impact.  This, she alleged, caused the post-collision fire and the injuries to her son.  At trial, the jury was permitted to consider evidence of the driver’s negligence and thus, the issue of comparative fault.  In doing so, it found for the defendant car manufacturer.  Id. at 428.  On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court reversed.  That court held that while the principles of comparative fault may apply to the causes of the first collision, they do not apply in crashworthiness cases where the sole focus is on the secondary injury. Id. at 441-42.

Well, the Florida legislature didn’t find that to be a wise holding.  In fact, the Florida Senate introduced a bill that would entitle “judges and juries . . . to hear and consider evidence of fault relating to the cause of the initial accident when apportioning fault for injuries caused by a subsequent or secondary accident.”

Well, as reported by The Product Liability Monitor, D’Amario will now be given a neat little red flag in your next Westlaw search, because the Florida legislature has passed that bill.  The real kick in the teeth to plaintiffs?  The law applies retroactively to pending cases.

North Carolina Court of Appeals on Product Modification/Alteration

Picture this: you represent a major automotive manufacturer in a products liability claim. On the eve of trial, your motion for summary judgment is granted, booting two of the plaintiffs from the case. Time to break out the bubbly, right? To borrow the phrase from my favorite football pundit, “Not so fast, my friend!” This is especially true if you are in North Carolina and you have an affirmative defense of modification under North Carolina General Statute 99B-3.

Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals analyzed the language of this statute which outlines the affirmative defense of modification or alteration of a product in Stark v. Ford Motor Co., No. COA09-286, 2010 WL 1959851 (N.C. Ct. App. May 18, 2010) [PDF]. In Stark, the case was originally filed in the name of all of the members of a family. The parents’ claims, along with the claims of one of the children, were dismissed pursuant to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Stark at *2. The only plaintiffs remaining in the case at the start of the trial were Cheyenne Stark (age 5 at the time of the accident) and her brother Cody Stark (age 9 at the time of the accident). Id. The minor plaintiffs were injured when their parents’ vehicle allegedly and unexpectedly accelerated while the mother was operating the vehicle in a parking lot. Id. The remaining plaintiffs’ theory was that their injuries were enhanced by an alleged design defect with the seat belts of the vehicle. Id.

The defendant asserted the affirmative defense of “Alteration or Modification of Product” available under N.C. Gen. Stat 99B-3. Specifically, the defendant argued that Cheyenne Stark had the shoulder belt behind her back at the time of the accident and thus the alleged design defect of “film spool” could not have been the cause of her injuries. Id. at *2. At the end of the trial, the jury returned a verdict finding the defendant “act[ed] unreasonably in designing the 1998 Ford Taurus and its component parts, proximately causing enhanced injury to Cheyenne Stark.” Id. at *3. However, the jury also found that Cheyenne’s enhanced injuries were caused by an alteration or modification of the vehicle. Id. Finally, the jury found that the defendant’s product did not cause the enhanced injury of the other minor plaintiff, Cody Stark. Id.

On appeal, the plaintiffs presented two arguments. First, since Cheyenne Stark was only 5 years old at the time of the accident, she was legally incapable of negligence and therefore unable to foresee that any modification or alteration could proximately cause her injury. Id. at *5. Second, the plaintiffs rebutted the defendant’s argument that Cheyenne’s parents modified the seat belt by putting the shoulder belt behind her back by relying on the statutory language that the modifier must be a party to the action. Id. at *6.

As to the plaintiff’s first argument, the court reasoned that the alteration or modification of a product must be the proximate cause of the injury in order for the defense to apply. As such, the court then engaged in a “foreseeability” analysis and pointed to longstanding North Carolina case law which held that children under the age of 7, as a matter of law, are incapable of negligence. Id. at *5. Thus, the court reasoned that under the appropriate standard of care for a child under the age of 7, the “…[d]efendant is unable, as a matter of law, to prove the requisite element of foreseeability inherent in the proximate cause portion of its N.C.G.S. 99B-3 defense.” Id. Since the defendant would be unable to establish proximate cause, the defense was unavailable as to any alleged modification or alteration performed by Cheyenne Stark herself.

With regard to the plaintiffs’ second argument, the court essentially applied the rules of statutory construction and held that “the plain language of N.C.G.S. 99B-3 states that he entity responsible for the modification or alteration of the product must be a party to the action in order for the defense to apply.” Id. at *7. The court recognized that the requirement that the modifier or alterer be a party to the case was an issue not previously determined by the courts in North Carolina. Therefore, the affirmative defense available under N.C. Gen. Stat. 99B-3 is only available if the one that modifies or alters the product is a party to the action. Which begs the question: was it really party time when the parents were kicked out the case shortly before the trial began? To be fair, hindsight is 20-20.