Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Motion in Limine Order in Quinton v. Toyota Addresses Crashworthiness in Modern Era

Earlier this week, I blogged about a recent trial of a Toyota Camry rollover case, which resulted in a defense verdict on June 21, 2013.  Prior to the trial, the Court issued a pre-trial Order in response to a motion in limine filed by Plaintiff's counsel.  The Order can be found here, and it is worthy of further commentary because it addresses crashworthiness in South Carolina.  It also references recent case law in which our courts have hinted at moving toward the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability (1998).  So...let's take a closer look.

To re-cap, the general facts relating to Quinton v. Toyota Motor Corporation can be found in this post.  Generally, the case involved a rollover of a 2009 Toyota Camry that resulted in the death of the driver (and sole occupant).  As stated in the Order, Plaintiff brought the case under the crashworthiness doctrine because she alleged the air bag failed to deploy properly during the accident. (Order at 2).  As a result, she claimed "enhanced injury" when the accident occurred, resulting in the death of the driver.  (Id).  Therefore, prior to trial, Plaintiff moved to exclude all evidence related to causation or fault. 

The Court began by summarizing prior South Carolina case authority on the crashworthiness doctrine.  Quoting from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Jiminez v. Daimler Chrysler Corp., 269 F.3d 439, 452 (4th Cir. 2001), the Court noted that "'liability [in a crashworthiness case] is imposed not for defects that cause collisions but for defects that cause injuries after collisions occur.'"  (Order at 2) (quoting id.).  In Jiminez, the district court excluded evidence of causation in a crashworthiness case.  The defendant had argued that because South Carolina adopted comparative negligence, the driver's alleged negligence was relevant to a damages calculation.  In concluding that the district court committed no error, the Jiminez Court noted that South Carolina had not addressed the issue of whether causation was relevant in a a crashworthiness analysis, and there was a split of authority on the issue.  Although the Court was not certain what the rule would be in South Carolina, it could not conclude that the the district court had erred in light of the fact that -- under the crashworthiness doctrine -- the cause of the original accident was not relevant to proving a claim for enhanced injury.  (Order at 2-3). 

Since Jiminez, the Court recognized that South Carolina courts still have not directly addressed this issue.  The Court offered to certify the question to the South Carolina Supreme Court, but the parties declined.  Therefore, the Court tried to ascertain how South Carolina courts would rule on it.  (Order at 3).

The Court reviewed that Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 390 S.C. 203, 220, 701 S.E.2d 5, 14 (2010) "embraced the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability (1998)."  (Order at 3).  Noting this trend, the Court cited to the comments in Restatement (Third) section 16 and the notion that a plaintiff's fault in causing an action that causes defect-related increased harm is relevant to apportioning responsibility.  (Order at 3-4) (emphasis added).  The Court noted that Jiminez did not hold that South Carolina would not admit evidence of cause in a crashworthiness analysis.  Rather, Jiminez only concluded there was no error by the district court under then-existing South Carolina law.  (Order at 4).

Since Jiminez, the Court noted that South Carolina has adopted comparative negligence, and its Supreme Court cited Restatement (Third) and its comments with approval in Branham.  (Order at 5).  The Court also noted that a majority of jurisdictions that considered the issue have held that comparative negligence is appropriately considered in a crashworthiness case.   Finally, the Court cited to language in Jiminez's dissent to support that a jury has to assess behavior of both the plaintiff and the defendant in a crashworthiness case to determine causation. The Court also agreed that the evidence was relevant to the analysis and conclusions of the experts accident reconstruction.  (Id.). 

The Order continues to show what this blog has maintained in numerous posts: Branham was a "game changer" in South Carolina products liability law.  Whether it leads to a definitive adoption of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability (1998) by the Legislature remains to be seen, although our Legislature also made those overtures during the last round of tort reform.  We'll see...

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