391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968), 18853, Larsen v. General Motors Corp.

Docket Nº:18853.
Citation:391 F.2d 495
Party Name:Erling David LARSEN, Appellant, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, a Delaware Corporation, Appellee.
Case Date:March 11, 1968
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
 
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Page 495

391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968)

Erling David LARSEN, Appellant,

v.

GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, a Delaware Corporation, Appellee.

No. 18853.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.

March 11, 1968

Page 496

John P. Lommen, of King, MacGregor & Lommen, Minneapolis, Minn., for appellant; Norman W. Larsen, Minneapolis, Minn., on the brief.

Franklin D. Gray, of Cant, Haverstock, Beardsley, Gray & Plant, Minneapolis, Minn., for appellee; Richard A. Bowman, Minneapolis, Minn., on the brief.

Before BLACKMUN, GIBSON and HEANEY, Circuit Judges.

FLOYD R. GIBSON, Circuit Judge.

The driver of an automobile claims injury as a result of an alleged negligent design of the steering assembly of the automobile. The alleged defect in design did not cause the accident, and the manufacturer asserts the law imposes no duty of care in the design of an automobile to make it more safe to occupy in the event of a collision. The trial court agreed, rendering summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer, reported at 274 F.Supp. 461 (D.C.Minn.1967). We reverse and remand.

The plaintiff-appellant, 1 Erling David Larsen, received severe bodily injuries while driving, with the consent of the owner, a 1963 Chevrolet Corvair on February 18, 1964 in the state of Michigan. A head-on collision, with the impact occurring

Page 497

on the left front corner of the Corvair, caused a severe rearward thrust of the steering mechanism into the plaintiff's head. The Corvair was manufactured by General Motors Corporation and liability is asserted against General Motors on an alleged design defect in the steering assembly and the placement or attachment of the component parts of the steering assembly to the structure of the Corvair. 2

The plaintiff does not contend that the design caused the accident but that because of the design he received injuries he would not have otherwise received or, in the alternative, his injuries would not have been as severe. The rearward displacement of the steering shaft on the left frontal impact was much greater on the Corvair than it would be in other cars that were designed to protect against such a rearward displacement. The plaintiff's complaint alleges (1) negligence in design of the steering assembly; (2) negligent failure to warn of the alleged latent or inherently dangerous condition to the user of the steering assembly placement; and (3) breach of express and implied warranties of merchantability of the vehicle's intended use.

General Motors contends it 'has no duty whatsoever to design and manufacture a vehicle * * * which is otherwise 'safe' or 'safer' to occupy during collision impacts,' and since there is no duty there can be no actionable negligence on its part to either design a safe or more safe car or to warn of any inherent or latent defects in design that might make its cars less safe than some other cars manufactured either by it or other manufacturers.

The District Court for the District of Minnesota rendered summary judgment in favor of General Motors on the basis that there was no common law duty on the manufacturer 'to make a vehicle which would protect the plaintiff from injury in the event of a head-on collision' and dismissed the complaint. A timely appeal was filed. This is a diversity case in a requisite jurisdictional amount and the parties have stipulated that the law of Michigan applies.

Since a summary judgment was rendered on the pleadings and exhibits before the court under Rule 56, Fed.R.Civ.P., we will take the well pled allegations in the complaint at their face value and assume for purposes of discussion and decision that there was a defect in the design of the steering assembly of the Corvair. Then if there are no issues or any discernible theory on which the losing party could recover, a summary judgment is proper. However, a summary judgment proceeding does not provide a very satisfactory approach in tort cases. Williams v. Chick, 373 F.2d 330 (8 Cir. 1967).

The District Court found this case to be closely related to the factual situation of Evans v. General Motors Corporation, 359 F.2d 822 (7 Cir. 1966), cert. denied 385 U.S. 836, 87 S.Ct. 83, 17 L.Ed.2d 70 (1966), which held in a divided decision that a manufacturer is under no duty to make its automobile 'accident-proof' or 'fool-proof' nor to render its vehicle 'more' safe where the danger to be avoided is obvious to all. The District Court discussed other cases, which will be set forth in this opinion, and concluded as follows:

'All of these factors when considered together lead to but one conclusion: The defendant G.M.'s duty toward the public is to design an automobile which is reasonably safe when driven and

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which contains no latent or hidden defects which could cause an accident and subsequent injury * * *. No contention is here made * * * that any design defect caused the accident which allegedly resulted in the plaintiff's injuries. In view of this fact and because this Court believes that any standards in this area must be left to the Legislature, this court has no alternative but to find that the defendant was not negligent in its design and construction of the 1963 Corvair automobile in that it was under no duty to make a vehicle which would protect the plaintiff from injury in the event of a head-on collision.' 274 F.Supp. at p. 464.

The District Court also held that there was no duty to warn since the law only requires a warning when the defects would render the product unsafe for its intended use and that its intended purpose was transportation.

Both parties agree that the question of a manufacturer's duty in the design of an automobile or of any chattel is a question of law for the court. The decisional law is in accord. Evans v. General Motors Corporation, supra; Schemel v. General Motors Corporation, 261 F.Supp. 134 (S.D.Ind.1966), aff'd 384 F.2d 802 (7 Cir. 1967); Kahn v. Chrysler Corporation, 221 F.Supp. 677 (S.D.Tex.1963).

General Motors contends that it has no duty to produce a vehicle in which it is safe to collide or which is accident-proof or incapable of injurious misuse. It views its duty as extending only to producing a vehicle that is reasonably fit for its intended use or for the purpose for which it was made and that is free from hidden defects; and that the intended use of a vehicle and the purpose for which it is manufactured do not include its participation in head-on collisions or any other type of impact, regardless of the manufacturer's ability to foresee that such collisions may occur. General Motors cites as supporting its contention, Evans v. General Motors Corporation, supra; Willis v. Chrysler Corporation, 264 F.Supp. 1010 (S.D.Tex.1967); Walz v. Erie-Lackawanna Railroad Company, CCH Prod.Liab.Rptr., P5722 (D.C.N.D.Ind.1967); Shumard v. General Motors Corporation, 270 F.Supp. 311 (S.D.Ohio 1967); Schemel v. General Motors Corporation, supra; Campo v. Scofield, 301 N.Y. 468, 95 N.E.2d 802 (1950).

The plaintiff maintains that General Motors' view of its duty is too narrow and restrictive and that an automobile manufacturer is under a duty to use reasonable care in the design of the automobile to make it safe to the user for its foreseeable use and that its intended use or purpose is for travel on the streets and highways, including the possibility of impact or collision with other vehicles or stationary objects. Plaintiff's reliance is placed on Ford Motor Company v. Zahn, 265 F.2d 729 (8 Cir. 1959); Blitzstein v. Ford Motor Company, 288 F.2d 738 (5 Cir. 1961); Spruill v. Boyle-Midway, Inc., 308 F.2d 79 (4 Cir. 1962); Comstock v. General Motors Corporation, 358 Mich. 163, 99 N.W.2d 627, 78 A.L.R.2d 449 (Mich.1959).

There is a line of cases directly supporting General Motors' contention that negligent design of an automobile is not actionable, where the alleged defective design is not a causative factor in the accident. The latest leading case on this point is Evans v. General Motors Corporation, 359 F.2d 822 (7 Cir. 1966), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 836, 87 S.Ct. 83, 17 L.Ed.2d 70 (1966). A divided court there held that General Motors in designing an 'X' body frame without perimeter support, instead of an allegedly more safe perimeter body frame, was not liable for the death of a user allegedly caused by the designed defect because the defendant's design could not have functioned to avoid the collision. The Court reasoned at pp. 824 and 825 of 359 F.2d:

'A manufacturer is not under a duty to make his automobile accident-proof or fool-proof; nor must he render the vehicle 'more' safe where the danger to be avoided is obvious to all.

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Campo v. Scofield, 1950, 301 N.Y. 468, 95 N.E.2d 802, 804. Perhaps it would be desirable to require manufacturers to construct automobiles in which it would be safe to collide, but that would be a legislative function, not an aspect of judicial interpretation of existing law. Campo v. Scofield, supra, 805.

'The intended purpose of an automobile does not include its participation in collisions with other objects, despite the manufacturer's ability to foresee the possibility that such collisions may occur. * * *'

A strong dissent was written by Judge Kiley in which he contended that General Motors had a duty in designing its automobile to use such care that reasonable protection would be given a user against death or injuries from foreseeable yet unavoidable accidents.

In General Motors Corporation v. Muncy, 367 F.2d 493 (5 Cir. 1966), cert. denied, 386 U.S. 1037, 87 S.Ct. 1476, 18 L.Ed.2d 600 (1967), the Court reversed the District Court judgment allowing recovery against General Motors for an allegedly negligent design of an ignition switch, which allowed the key to be removed...

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