534 F.2d 795 (8th Cir. 1976), 75-1316, Melia v. Ford Motor Co.

Docket Nº:75-1316.
Citation:534 F.2d 795
Party Name:John D. MELIA, Special Administrator of the Estate of Pearl Lorraine Norgaard, Deceased, Appellee, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a corporation, Appellant.
Case Date:April 20, 1976
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Page 795

534 F.2d 795 (8th Cir. 1976)

John D. MELIA, Special Administrator of the Estate of Pearl

Lorraine Norgaard, Deceased, Appellee,


FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a corporation, Appellant.

No. 75-1316.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 20, 1976

Submitted Dec. 8, 1975.

Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied May 20, 1976.

Page 796

C. L. Robinson, Omaha, Neb., for appellant; Lyle J. Strom, Omaha, Neb., filed brief.

Page 797

Martin A. Cannon, Omaha, Neb., for appellee.

Before LAY, BRIGHT and HENLEY, Circuit Judges.

LAY, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a jury verdict in favor of the Special Administrator of the Estate of Pearl Lorraine Norgaard against the Ford Motor Company. The suit was a wrongful death action based on a product liability claim for strict liability under Nebraska law. The decedent died as a result of injuries received in a two-car collision on February 11, 1971 at the intersection of 90th Street and Military Road in Omaha, Nebraska. Her automobile was struck on the left front door and she was thrown from the car. Her suit against Ford was based on an alleged design defect in the left door latch assembly of the 1968 Ford Mustang in which she was driving at the time of the accident.

The jury returned a verdict for $55,000. The district court, the Honorable Albert G. Schatz presiding, overruled defendant's motion for new trial and in the alternative a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. This appeal followed, in which Ford urges (1) the trial court erred in not directing a verdict for the defendant on the ground that the Ford automobile was reasonably safe as a matter of law; (2) that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that they must consider whether the auto as a whole was defective and unreasonably dangerous; and (3) that the trial court failed to admit evidence that the decedent was driving at an excessive rate of speed, 60 miles per hour, and ran a red light. We affirm the judgment of the district court.

Nebraska law, of course, controls. In Friedrich v. Anderson, 191 Neb. 724, 217 N.W.2d 831 (1974), the Nebraska Supreme Court considered the automobile manufacturer's duty to avoid unsafe design, and stated:

We . . . hold that a manufacturer of goods has a duty to use reasonable care in the design of goods to protect those who will use the goods from unreasonable risk of harm while the goods are being used for their intended purpose or any purpose which could be reasonably expected. The subjection of an automobile to accidental collision with another automobile or object while being used for its intended purpose is a use which a manufacturer should reasonably expect.

217 N.W.2d at 836 (emphasis added).

See also Kohler v. Ford Motor Co., 187 Neb. 428, 191 N.W.2d 601 (1971). Cf. Larsen v. General Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968).

This rule, of course, was not intended to make the manufacturer an insurer of the safety of the automobile's occupants under all circumstances. 1 Thus, in Friedrich

Page 798

the Nebraska Supreme Court found that a design of a gear shift knob, which the driver hit upon colliding with another car, did not create a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm. The court said:

(W)henever a "second impact" or enhanced injury occurs, this should not be an open invitation to a jury to speculate as to the issue of foreseeability or the unreasonableness of the risk of harm. This is no different than in any other tort case in which there is always the preliminary question of law for the court "not whether there is literally no evidence, but whether there is any upon which a jury can properly proceed to find a verdict for the party producing it, upon whom the burden of proof is imposed."

217 N.W.2d at 836, quoting Langemeier, Inc. v. Pendgraft, 178 Neb. 250, 132 N.W.2d 880 (1965).

An analysis of the record here reveals sufficient evidence of unsafe design creating a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm. Two well qualified professional engineers testified for the plaintiff that the door latch deviated from safety engineering practice and was not protected from horizontal external forces which could release the latch. In their opinion the collision to the car had only a "brushing" horizontal effect on the door and the latch had no "fail-safe" mechanism to prevent the car door from flying open. 2

Mr. Egerer, one of the plaintiff's engineers, testified that the door latch was designed in such a manner that it would open upon very slight impact. 3 Using visual exhibits, he showed the trial court and the jury the door latches used on the 1968 Lincoln, Ambassador, Plymouth and Chevrolet. Each of these latches in his opinion contained a fail-safe mechanism, unlike the 1968 Mustang. Both Mr. Egerer and Mr. Klein, plaintiff's other expert, testified that the design involved did not conform to accepted engineering standards.

Ford's engineer, Mr. Tiede, disagreed and opined that the latch was fail-safe since the door would not open when the inside door lock was depressed. His primary disagreement with plaintiff's experts, however, concerned the manner in which the collision occurred and the force exerted on the latch causing the door to open.

Defendant's argument is that the defect did not, as a matter of law, create a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm. We cannot agree. Ford's expert acknowledged that automobile manufacturers' research facilities have long been concerned with safe door latch design. 4 National safety figures and a study performed by the National Safety Council were offered to show

Page 799

the increased probability of fatalities when passengers are ejected in auto accidents. For this court to rule that a jury could not find an unreasonable risk of harm from a car door opening upon slight impact, would require us to ignore the record as well as common experience.

As the risk of injury increases, so does the manufacturer's responsibility to exercise care in safely designing the product. The reasonableness of the risk of harm from the design of a certain door latch in an automobile is far removed from the reasonableness of the increased risk of harm from an undersized gear shift knob discussed briefly in the Friedrich case. The foreseeable risk of harm from hitting a particular size gear shift knob is no greater upon collision than hitting any other object within a car. However, the foreseeable risk of harm when a car door opens from a brushing horizontal impact on the door is much greater than when the door remains closed.

In the present case, the evidence showed that the door opened and closed freely and the window was fully operable after the collision. The only reason the door would not remain closed after the accident was that the door latch no longer worked. If the door opened due to a violent collision with the car then the proximate cause of the fatality was the collision and not the defective latch. If, on the other hand, the door opened following a slight impact on the door due to the lack of a fail-safe mechanism, a contributing cause of the fatality was the door latch design. This was a question for the jury to resolve from the conflicting testimony not the court. 5 Obviously, the jury believed the plaintiff's version of how the accident happened and the evidence strongly corroborates this version.

The likelihood and the gravity of harm when a door latch of an automobile opens upon collision must be balanced against the burden of requiring the manufacturer to design so as to avoid the risk. It is clear that the plaintiff has stated a submissible claim of foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm.

The trial judge considered defendant's motion for a directed verdict and on the strength of the evidence had little difficulty disposing of it. Although this court is not bound by a trial judge's interpretation of state law, we nonetheless give it special weight in diversity cases. Sherrill v. Royal Industries, Inc., 526 F.2d 507, 510 (8th Cir.1975); Luke v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co., 476 F.2d 1015, 1019 (8th Cir.), cert. denied,414 U.S. 856, 94 S.Ct. 158, 38 L.Ed.2d 105 (1973). Furthermore, in the federal courts, we have been admonished that before a judge should deprive a litigant of a jury determination there must be "a complete absence of probative facts to support the conclusion reached . . . ." Lavender v. Kurn, 327 U.S. 645, 653, 66 S.Ct. 740, 744, 90 L.Ed. 916, 923 (1946). It is impossible to fairly appraise the record in this light.

The trial court instructed that if the jury found that in failing to wear the seat belt or lock the door, the decedent misused the product or assumed the risk of injury, recovery would be barred. The jury was properly allowed to pass on these issues. On this record, the defendant is in no position to assert that the court erred in failing to rule in its favor as a matter of law. Cf. Hoppe v. Midwest Conveyor Co., 485 F.2d 1196 (8th Cir. 1973). 6

The intended use doctrine necessarily includes foreseeable consequences of misuse. With hindsight one might conclude that the decedent would not have been fatally injured

Page 800

had she used her seat belt or locked the door. However, one cannot say as a matter of law that such conduct of an automobile user was not reasonably foreseeable. There is no evidence that the decedent knew that the door latch was defectively designed or was aware of the danger that it might open, upon collision, if the door was not locked. Thus it cannot be argued that the defect was discovered and the product unreasonably used after the discovery of the defect. Foreseeable use includes any particular use which should be known to a reasonably prudent manufacturer. The issue of the...

To continue reading