835 F.2d 1475 (D.C. Cir. 1987), 87-7016, Siegel v. Mazda Motor Corp.

Docket Nº:87-7016.
Citation:835 F.2d 1475
Party Name:Mary Kate SIEGEL, personal representative of the estate of Steven Alan Siegel v. MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION, a/k/a Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd., Appellant.
Case Date:December 29, 1987
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

Page 1475

835 F.2d 1475 (D.C. Cir. 1987)

Mary Kate SIEGEL, personal representative of the estate of

Steven Alan Siegel

v.

MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION, a/k/a Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd., Appellant.

No. 87-7016.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

December 29, 1987

Argued Oct. 30, 1987.

Page 1476

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 85-02896).

Edward S. Digges, Jr., with whom Michael T. Wharton, Baltimore, Md., was on the brief, for appellant.

Milton Heller, with whom J. Philip Kessel and Barbara Moir Condos, Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellees.

Victor E. Schwartz, Washington, D.C., and William H. Crabtree, Detroit, Mich., were on the brief for amicus curiae, Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n, Inc. and Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., urging reversal.

Before RUTH B. GINSBURG, STARR and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge RUTH B. GINSBURG.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG, Circuit Judge:

A tragic accident underlies this wrongful death action. On a cold January weekday morning in 1984, Steven Alan Siegel, then twenty-six years old, was driving alone on Rock Creek Parkway en route to work. He had purchased the car he was driving, a 1984 Mazda, in October 1983, and had thereafter driven it some 1600 miles without incident or difficulty. As the district judge described the episode, the car

went off the road going 35 m.p.h. ... No brakes were applied. No other vehicle was involved. There were no witnesses to what happened before the car hit the curb and tumbled over into Rock Creek. The driver was unable to communicate before he died.

Memorandum, Siegel v. Mazda Motor Corp., No. 85-2896 (D.D.C. Dec. 19, 1986) (Siegel Memorandum).

The jury returned a verdict for Siegel's widow, on a product liability finding, in the total amount of $832,896.46; the district judge then confronted a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict properly predicated on an antecedent motion for a directed verdict on which the court had reserved its ruling. See FED.R.CIV.P. 50(b). The judge denied the motion, reasoning that this court's decision in Stewart v. Ford Motor Co., 553 F.2d 130 (D.C.Cir.1977), permitted a decision for plaintiff even if the judge were to appraise the evidence as insufficient to support fact findings of "car difficulty and the lack of driver error." Siegel Memorandum at 4. The district judge suggested, however, that the Stewart decision "should be further explicated," because there is apparent "merit in the view that some showing of difficulty in a car prior to an accident, or more specific negation of driver error should be [required]." Siegel Memorandum at 4-5.

We recognize that our Stewart decision is susceptible of more than one reading, and we take this occasion to explicate the holding of that case. We do so mindful that in this case, as in Stewart itself, see 553 F.2d at 133 & n. 1, 137-38, we are exercising our "best guess" on the content of District of Columbia law, appreciating that the District of Columbia courts, not

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this federal court, now serve as definitive arbiters of D.C. tort law.

With that caveat, we hold that to warrant submission of a case to the jury under the product liability-circumstantial proof test advanced in Stewart, there must be sufficient evidence of car difficulty and lack of driver error so that a reasonable person could find it more probable than not that the accident occurred because of a vehicle malfunction. Having provided the explication invited by the district judge, we vacate the district court's judgment and remand the case so that the district judge may canvass the evidence--both on implied warranty and product liability--and rule anew on the motion for judgment n.o.v.

I.

The automobile accident that led to the death of Steven Alan Siegel, and gave rise to this lawsuit, occurred on the morning of January 27, 1984 on Rock Creek Parkway in the District of Columbia. The vehicle involved was a new Mazda 626 LX which Siegel had purchased some three months earlier. Prior to the accident, Siegel had operated the car without incident. He had experienced no mechanical difficulties, and no repair or maintenance work had been done on the vehicle.

At the time of the accident, Siegel was taking his customary route to work; he was proceeding southbound on a winding section of the Parkway. The weather was cold, clear and dry; some snow and ice from a recent snowstorm remained on the roadside. Rounding a turn, Siegel's Mazda left the road, hit the curb, slid across snow-covered grass abutting the Parkway, struck a water fountain, and came to rest, upside down, in swollen Rock Creek.

Passersby made unsuccessful efforts to extricate Siegel from the submerged car. Rescue workers ultimately raised the Mazda to the creek bank and removed Siegel from the car. By that time, however, Siegel had suffered brain damage so severe that he was never able to relate what he perceived or believed to have gone awry. Siegel died some sixteen months after the accident.

No one saw the entire accident sequence. Two persons, a motorist travelling southbound and a jogger, saw portions of the episode beginning no earlier than the moment Siegel's Mazda left the Parkway and struck the curb, already out of control. Park police took no measurements, nor did they make any other scene investigation.

Mary Kate Siegel, widow of Steven Alan Siegel, commenced this wrongful death action against Mazda Motors Corporation (Mazda) in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, invoking federal jurisdiction on the basis of the parties' diversity of citizenship. 1 At trial, plaintiff endeavored to prove entitlement to recover on two alternative theories. First, plaintiff charged breach of an implied warranty; she contended that minute metal particles in the Mazda's power steering fluid had jammed the steering gear, and that this specific defect had caused the car to leave the roadway. Second, she invoked a strict product liability theory charging that some general, i.e., unspecified, defect, attributable to Mazda, caused the accident.

Plaintiff's proof was entirely circumstantial. She presented evidence tending to show that the accident had not been caused by driver intoxication, excessive speed, or hazardous road conditions. She called an expert in support of her assertion that the Mazda could have left the Parkway due to a vehicle malfunction. Based on photographs of tire marks made by the Mazda when it struck the curb, her expert testified that the car had hit the curb with its front wheels turned fully to the right. Plaintiff maintained that these tire marks showed that the Mazda left the road due to a steering column defect, for no driver, however careless, would turn the steering wheel in such a fashion absent a vehicle malfunction. While plaintiff's expert expressed

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no opinion as to the actual cause of the accident, he stated that metal particles in the power steering fluid, if they became lodged between component parts in the steering column, could hinder car steerage and cause an unintended turn of the front wheels.

Mazda countered with evidence intended to show that driver error, rather than vehicle defect or malfunction, had caused the Mazda to leave the road. To rebut plaintiff's "particles theory," Mazda introduced technical evidence indicating that the shearing forces present in the power steering system would prevent any metal particles that found their way into the operative parts of the steering column from hindering the power-assist feature and that, in any case, loss of power steering would not compromise manual steering capabilities. In addition, Mazda attempted to show that no other manufacturer-related defect had caused the accident. Mazda had...

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