118 F.3d 1478 (11th Cir. 1997), 96-2678, Goulah v. Ford Motor Co.

Docket Nº:96-2678.
Citation:118 F.3d 1478
Party Name:James GOULAH, husband, Nancy Goulah, wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants, Ajodhia Dabydeen, etc., et al., Plaintiffs, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a foreign corporation, Defendant-Appellee, Eris, Inc., Movant.
Case Date:August 07, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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Page 1478

118 F.3d 1478 (11th Cir. 1997)

James GOULAH, husband, Nancy Goulah, wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

Ajodhia Dabydeen, etc., et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a foreign corporation, Defendant-Appellee,

Eris, Inc., Movant.

No. 96-2678.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 7, 1997

Page 1479

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Avery B. Goodman, Tampa, FL, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Scott E. Damon, Cabaniss & Burke, Orlando, FL, Kathleen A. Clark, Dawson & Clark, Detroit, MI, Lee Allen Mickus, Michael L. O'Donnell, Parcel, Mauro, Hultin & Spaanstra, Denver, CO, for Defendant-Appellee.

Wendy F. Lumish, Carlton, Fields, Ward, Emmanuel, Smith & Cutler, P.A., Miami, FL, for Ford Motor Co.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Before BLACK, Circuit Judge, and FAY and ALARCON [*], Senior Circuit Judges.

FAY, Senior Circuit Judge:

James and Nancy Goulah, residents of the State of Florida, filed this products liability action against Ford Motor Company, a Delaware corporation, alleging that defects in, and the negligent design of the Ford Bronco II caused the Goulahs to sustain serious injuries in a rollover accident. After a three week trial, the jury returned a verdict for Ford. Plaintiffs now appeal the trial court's admission and exclusion of various pieces of evidence and the court's refusal to give several requested jury instructions, including an instruction on comparative negligence. We affirm.

I.

On October 4, 1989, James and Nancy Goulah ("Plaintiffs") were severely injured when their Ford Bronco II 4x2 rolled over on Interstate 75 in Central Florida. At the time of the accident, Plaintiffs were towing a small trailer, which was attached to the standard "ball hitch" that came on the rear of the vehicle. Mr. Goulah was driving, while Mrs. Goulah was riding in the passenger seat.

Mrs. Goulah testified at trial that she and her husband had just begun a three week vacation. They were traveling north on I-75 at about 55 m.p.h., when Mrs. Goulah looked in her side mirror and saw the trailer go "slightly left, and slightly right, and slightly left." R42-30. Thereafter, the trailer "swung around," fell over, and slid down the highway. Plaintiffs' vehicle broke away from the trailer and went into a barrel roll. Id. Mrs. Goulah was ejected from the vehicle, but sustained less serious injuries than her husband, who unfortunately was pinned inside. Mr. Goulah remains partially paralyzed to this day.

Plaintiffs filed suit against Ford Motor Company, alleging that Ford's (i) negligent design of the Bronco II, (ii) distribution of an unreasonably dangerous and defective product, and (iii) failure to warn owners about the Bronco II's rollover propensity caused the Plaintiffs' accident. 1 The Ford Bronco II is a "small" or "light" sport utility vehicle that

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was sold in the U.S. from 1983 to 1990. 2 In general terms, "sport utility vehicles" (sometimes referred to as "SUVs") are multipurpose passenger vehicles that have varying degrees of off-road capability. "Small" SUVs are smaller and lighter than "full-sized" utility vehicles, and they typically have a shorter wheel base. 3 Compared to normal passenger cars, small SUVs typically have a shorter track width 4 and higher center of gravity. 5 These factors, according to Plaintiffs, create an unreasonably dangerous risk of rollover. 6 That risk is allegedly greater with the Bronco II than with any other comparable vehicle on the market.

In response to Plaintiffs' complaint, Ford generally denied all allegations and also asserted the defense of comparative negligence. At trial, Ford sought to support that defense with evidence (1) that the trailer attached to the rear of Plaintiffs' Bronco did not have any trailer brakes, which were required by Florida law, (2) that the trailer was improperly loaded and caused the vehicle's instability, (3) that Mr. Goulah, who suffered a stroke three years prior to the incident, had a seizure while driving, (4) that Mr. Goulah failed to drive the vehicle properly, and (5) that Plaintiffs were not wearing their seat belts at the time of the accident. In both its opening statement and closing statements to the jury, Ford argued that it was these factors that caused Plaintiffs' accident, not the Bronco II.

Before trial, Plaintiffs filed a motion in limine to exclude reports about the Bronco II written by the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration ("NHTSA"). NHTSA began a defect investigation of the Bronco II in 1988. The alleged defects under investigation were defined as "the rollover susceptibility of the Bronco II and the crash worthiness of the vehicle during a rollover." As in all defect investigations, NHTSA sent a request for information to Ford, asking for specific information related to all Bronco IIs "sold in the U.S. since August 1, 1982." After NHTSA completed its investigation, the agency ultimately concluded that there were no safety-related defects in the Bronco II.

In opposition to the admissibility of NHTSA's reports, 7 Plaintiffs attempted to show that Ford deliberately altered, destroyed, and withheld documents from NHTSA and that therefore, NHTSA's conclusions were untrustworthy. Ultimately, the district court denied Plaintiffs' motion to exclude the evidence.

At trial, Ford employees admitted that a great deal of information was withheld from NHTSA, but they claimed it was only because the information was not relevant to NHTSA's inquiry or because it related only to "prototype" vehicles, which were different from the Bronco II's "sold after August 1, 1982." General Jerry Curry, the former Administrator of NHTSA, testified that during the NHTSA investigation of the Bronco II there was never any allegation that Ford withheld documents from NHTSA. According to Curry, if there had been such an allegation, NHTSA would have investigated

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it thoroughly. Curry also stated that the agency's requests for information were very specific and that if the agency had wanted "prototype" information, it would have specifically requested it in its letter. Based on this testimony, the district court ultimately concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to present evidence sufficient to substantiate their claim that Ford withheld documents from NHTSA. The court instructed the jury "to disregard all evidence and argument suggesting that Ford Motor Company failed to submit to NHTSA any requested documentation concerning the Bronco II vehicle."

Plaintiffs introduced other evidence of "document destruction," which centered on the fact that 52 documents relating to the Bronco II's stability factors were "missing" from Ford's files. Frederick Parrill, a Ford employee, testified that during the Bronco II's development stages, Ford's Office of General Counsel ("OGC") requested engineers to gather all data, documents, and files relating to the Bronco II. Parrill acknowledged that concerns about Bronco II product liability spawned the collection efforts and that Ford lawyers were involved in Bronco II meetings.

Parrill was put in charge of collecting the documents, but before doing so, he sent a letter to his engineers requesting them to "list" the documents in their possession. Approximately 110 documents ended up on the list, but only half were ever collected. From these facts, Plaintiffs urged the jury to...

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