717 F.2d 1511 (6th Cir. 1983), 82-3099, Sours v. General Motors Corp.

Docket Nº:82-3099.
Citation:717 F.2d 1511
Party Name:Dennis C. SOURS, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:September 19, 1983
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

Page 1511

717 F.2d 1511 (6th Cir. 1983)

Dennis C. SOURS, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 82-3099.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 19, 1983

Argued April 25, 1983.

Page 1512

C. Reynolds Keller, Jr. (argued), Weston, Hurd, Fallon, Paisley & Howley, Cleveland, Ohio, for defendant-appellant.

M.L. Heller (argued), Komito, Nuremberg, Plevin, Jacobson, Heller & McCarthy, John J. McCarthy, Harlan M. Gordon, Richard C. Alkire, Cleveland, Ohio, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before JONES, WELLFORD and TIMBERS, [*] Circuit Judges.

TIMBERS, Circuit Judge.

General Motors Corporation (GM) appeals from a judgment entered in the Northern District of Ohio, John M. Manos, District Judge, on October 6, 1981 upon a jury verdict awarding Dennis C. Sours and his father Olen Sours $2,282,402.00 and $49,336.41, respectively, for personal injuries sustained by Dennis, on September 30, 1976, when his 1968 Chevrolet Camaro slid off the road and rolled over in a one-car accident, and for hospital and medical expenses incurred by Olen. Dennis' neck was broken in this crash as the result of the partial collapse of the roof of the car when it rolled over. Dennis was left a quadriplegic.

The jury, in its answers to special interrogatories, found that GM was liable for the injuries and damages sustained, first, because it negligently had designed the car's roof so that it could not withstand the low-speed roll-over, and, second, because the roof structure constituted a defective product under the principles of strict liability. The jury also found that Dennis' injuries were proximately caused by the collapse of the car's roof and that the car had not been substantially modified so as to relieve GM of liability.

On appeal GM claims that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's findings of negligence, product defect, and lack of substantial modification. GM also claims that the district court erred in excluding evidence that Dennis was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident.

After careful consideration, we find each of GM's claims of error to be without merit. We affirm.

I.

On the day of the accident, plaintiff's 1 automobile slid, the passenger or right side

Page 1513

first, off Ohio Route 303 near its intersection with Ohio Route 88 in Portage County, Ohio. The car skidded into a ditch bank, still sideways, and then rolled over a full 360 degrees, coming finally to rest again on its wheels, facing in the direction from which it came. During the course of the roll, the roof of the car crashed into the ground and was deformed, collapsing partially into the passenger compartment over the head of the plaintiff driver. Although none of the three passengers was injured seriously, plaintiff sustained serious injuries as stated above. Neither plaintiff nor the three passengers were wearing seat belts when the accident occurred.

Plaintiffs commenced the instant diversity action in September 1978 against GM, whose Chevrolet division had manufactured the car. They sought compensatory and punitive damages resulting from Dennis' injuries and Olen's out-of-pocket expenses and loss of his son's companionship. Their amended complaint filed in November 1979 set forth three grounds for recovery: (1) negligence in the design of the car's roof; (2) strict liability for the defective design of the car's roof; and (3) breach of express and implied warranties. The breach of warranty claims were dismissed prior to trial upon GM's motion; they are not before us on this appeal.

GM filed its answer to the amended complaint on February 6, 1981, generally denying the allegations of the complaint. GM alleged, as it urged at trial, that plaintiff's injuries were caused not by the collapse of the roof but by his dive into the right roof rail as the car rolled over. GM also pleaded the affirmative defenses of contributory negligence and assumption of risk, based on its claim that plaintiff's injuries occurred because he was not wearing his seat belt.

On February 17, 1981, plaintiffs moved to strike the latter defenses on the ground that evidence of failure to use an automobile seat belt is inadmissible under Ohio law to prove contributory negligence, much less the deliberate participation in a known peril necessary to sustain the defense of assumption of risk. Shortly before trial plaintiffs renewed their claims in the form of a motion in limine to prohibit any reference at trial to Dennis' failure to use a seat belt. The district court, based on its interpretation of controlling Ohio law, granted both of plaintiffs' motions in a memorandum opinion filed September 17, 1981. To preserve its position, GM made an offer of proof at trial with respect to the seat-belt evidence.

The sixteen day trial began in Cleveland on September 14, 1981. At the close of plaintiffs' case, GM moved for a directed verdict, which the court granted as to the punitive damage claim but denied in all other respects. At the close of the entire case, GM renewed its motion for a directed verdict, which again was denied.

On October 6, the jury returned its verdict in the form of answers to special interrogatories as set forth above. On October 9, judgment against GM was entered upon the jury verdict. Thereafter, GM's motions for a new trial and for judgment n.o.v. were denied. GM thereupon filed the instant appeal.

We hold that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict, including its specific findings that negligence in the design of the car's roof proximately caused plaintiff's injuries, that product defect proximately caused his injuries, and that there was no substantial modification. We also hold that the seat belt evidence, even if admissible, would have had no bearing on the case as it was tried by the parties and therefore its exclusion, if error at all, was harmless. We affirm in all respects.

II.

In view of the importance of applying the correct law in resolving the issues with which we deal in the remainder of this opinion, it is critical that we determine at the outset what is the applicable law. We take it to be common ground that, in this diversity action arising from an accident that occurred in Ohio, the law of that state

Page 1514

as enunciated by the Ohio Supreme Court governs. Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938).

We recently have described the precise contours of our inquiry as follows:

"A federal court sitting in diversity must apply the law of the state's highest court. If the highest court has not spoken, the federal court must ascertain from all available data what the state law is and apply it. If the state appellate court announces a principle and relies on it, that is a datum not to be disregarded by the federal court unless it is convinced by other persuasive data that the highest court of the state would decide otherwise." (citations omitted).

Clutter v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 646 F.2d 1151, 1153 (6th Cir.1981). See also Coleman v. Western Elec. Co., 671 F.2d 980, 983-84 (6th Cir.1982); 1A Moore's Federal Practice p 0.307-0.309, at 3077-3134 (2d ed. 1982).

III.

GM challenges the jury verdict in four respects. First, it argues that, under the "multiple factor" risk-benefit analysis announced in Knitz v. Minster Machine Co., 69 Ohio St.2d 460, 432 N.E.2d 814, cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 127 (1982), there was insufficient evidence to support the finding of product defect. Second, it argues that its compliance with federal standards was a conclusive defense to the claims of product defect and negligence. Third, it argues that there was insufficient evidence of negligent design to sustain the jury verdict. Finally, it argues that the finding of no substantial modification is insupportable. We shall discuss each of these arguments seriatum.

(A)

The crux of strict products liability law, in Ohio as in other states, is that a product must perform in accordance with the expectations of the ordinary user. 2 A product that does not measure up to such expectations is "unreasonably dangerous" and hence defective within the meaning of Restatement (Second) of Torts Sec. 402A (1965), which Ohio has expressly adopted. Temple v. Wean United, Inc., 50 Ohio St.2d 317, 364 N.E.2d 267 (1977). "A product will be found unreasonably dangerous if it is dangerous to an extent beyond the expectations of an ordinary consumer when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner." Leichtamer v. American Motors Corp., 67 Ohio St.2d 456, 467, 424 N.E.2d 568, 577 (1981). The Ohio Supreme Court recently has reaffirmed its adherence to this basic principle. Knitz v. Minster Machine Co., supra, 69 Ohio St.2d at 465-66, 432 N.E.2d at 817-18.

The jury in the instant case was instructed in accordance with this consumer expectation test. We cannot say--nor does GM seriously contend--that under this test the evidence was insufficient to support the jury finding of product defect. On the face of it, a consumer might well expect that the roof of his car would withstand a low-speed roll-over without significant collapse. As GM's own expert succinctly stated, the roof design was intended "to provide structural strength and integrity--it does more than just keep the rain out." GM as the manufacturer therefore recognized the need to design a crashworthy roof. Moreover plaintiffs introduced substantial persuasive evidence on this issue. For example, they introduced testimony bearing on the manufacturer's conceded responsibility to design a "crashworthy" vehicle, as well as the hazards presented by roll-over accidents. They also introduced credible evidence of the "encroachment" problem--that being the tendency of the roof on the 1968 Camaro body type ("F-37") to deform and collapse into the passenger area under stress such as that to which the roof was subjected in the

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38 practice notes
  • 231 B.R. 254 (Bkrtcy.E.D.Mich. 1999), 98-20611, In re Spradlin
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Bankruptcy Courts Sixth Circuit
    • 29 Gennaio 1999
    ...decide the issue. In re Boufsko, Inc., 44 B.R. 98 n. 1, 39 U.C.C.Rep.Serv. 1788 (Bankr.E.D.Mich.1984); cf. Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511, 1514 (6th Cir.1983) (diversity Michigan law on statutory interpretation is essentially the same as it is under federal law. "The prim......
  • 741 P.2d 1240 (Colo. 1987), 85SC112, Camacho v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd.
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court of Colorado
    • 13 Luglio 1987
    ...which have considered the issue. E.g., Hermann v. General Motors Corp., 720 F.2d 414 (5th Cir.1983); Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511 (6th Cir.1983); Horn v. General Motors Corp., 17 Cal.3d 359, 131 Cal.Rptr. 78, 551 P.2d 398 (1976); Ford Motor Co. v. Evancho, 327 So.2d 201 (Fla......
  • Aldridge v. Reckart Equip. Co., 091906 OHCA4, 04CA17
    • United States
    • Ohio Court of Appeals of Ohio
    • 19 Settembre 2006
    ...lack of consumer expectation with respect to a one-vehicle, rollover accident in which plaintiff alleged a defect in the roof design. See 717 F.2d 1511, 1515-16 (6th Cir.1983). The Sours court found that the trial court properly instructed the jury on the consumer-expectation test and held ......
  • 750 F.2d 418 (5th Cir. 1985), 83-2487, Shipp v. General Motors Corp.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
    • 14 Gennaio 1985
    ...such minimum safety standards does not exempt or immunize a manufacturer from common law strict liability. Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511, 1517 (6th Cir.1983); Ellis v. K-Lan Co., Inc., 695 F.2d 157, 161 (5th Cir.1983). Certainly Congress did not intend such a result, for 15 U......
  • Free signup to view additional results
37 cases
  • 231 B.R. 254 (Bkrtcy.E.D.Mich. 1999), 98-20611, In re Spradlin
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Bankruptcy Courts Sixth Circuit
    • 29 Gennaio 1999
    ...decide the issue. In re Boufsko, Inc., 44 B.R. 98 n. 1, 39 U.C.C.Rep.Serv. 1788 (Bankr.E.D.Mich.1984); cf. Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511, 1514 (6th Cir.1983) (diversity Michigan law on statutory interpretation is essentially the same as it is under federal law. "The prim......
  • 741 P.2d 1240 (Colo. 1987), 85SC112, Camacho v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd.
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court of Colorado
    • 13 Luglio 1987
    ...which have considered the issue. E.g., Hermann v. General Motors Corp., 720 F.2d 414 (5th Cir.1983); Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511 (6th Cir.1983); Horn v. General Motors Corp., 17 Cal.3d 359, 131 Cal.Rptr. 78, 551 P.2d 398 (1976); Ford Motor Co. v. Evancho, 327 So.2d 201 (Fla......
  • Aldridge v. Reckart Equip. Co., 091906 OHCA4, 04CA17
    • United States
    • Ohio Court of Appeals of Ohio
    • 19 Settembre 2006
    ...lack of consumer expectation with respect to a one-vehicle, rollover accident in which plaintiff alleged a defect in the roof design. See 717 F.2d 1511, 1515-16 (6th Cir.1983). The Sours court found that the trial court properly instructed the jury on the consumer-expectation test and held ......
  • 750 F.2d 418 (5th Cir. 1985), 83-2487, Shipp v. General Motors Corp.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
    • 14 Gennaio 1985
    ...such minimum safety standards does not exempt or immunize a manufacturer from common law strict liability. Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511, 1517 (6th Cir.1983); Ellis v. K-Lan Co., Inc., 695 F.2d 157, 161 (5th Cir.1983). Certainly Congress did not intend such a result, for 15 U......
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1 provisions
  • Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards:
    • United States
    • Federal Register March 22, 2011
    • 22 Marzo 2011
    ...Motor of America, 131 S.Ct. 1131 (2011); Fabian v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., 628 F.3d. 278 (6th Cir. 2010); Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511, 1517 (6th Cir. 1983); Restatement (Third) of Torts, Product Liability Sec. 2, We note that the term ``reasonable care'' is similar to the ter......