Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Crosby

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Citation273 Ga. 454,543 S.E.2d 21
Decision Date16 February 2001
Docket NumberNo. S00G0490.,S00G0490.

543 S.E.2d 21
273 Ga. 454

CROSBY et al

No. S00G0490.

Supreme Court of Georgia.

February 16, 2001.

543 S.E.2d 22
Drew, Eckl & Farnham, W. Wray Eckl, Melanie C. Eyre, Atlanta, Watson, Spence, Lowe & Chambless, Dawn G. Benson, Albany, for appellant

Cathey & Strain, Edward E. Strain III, David A. Sleppy, Cottingham & Porter, Sidney L. Cottingham, Robert L. Porter, Jr., Douglas, for appellees.

King & Spalding, Byron Attridge, Chilton D. Varner, Amy M. Power, McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe, Douglas N. Campbell, Kenneth J. Moran, Troutman Sanders, N. Karen Deming, Carmie L. McCurry, Lord, Bissell & Brook, Terry R. Howell, Deborah A. Ausburn, Atlanta, Butler, Wooten, Overby, Fryhofer & Daugherty, James E. Butler, Jr., Joel O. Wooten, Jr., George W. Fryhofer III, Terrance C. Sullivan, Cale H. Conley, Atlanta, Alembik, Fine & Callner, G. Michael Banick, Karen M. Raby, Atlanta, amici curiae.

SEARS, Justice.

This products liability action stems from a tire explosion and resulting automobile wreck in which one person was killed and two people were injured. The jury found for the defendant tire manufacturer, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for retrial,1 and this Court granted certiorari. Certiorari

543 S.E.2d 23
was not granted to address the grounds of the Court of Appeals' reversal (hence, this matter will be retried),2 but rather was granted in order to address the Court of Appeals' ruling on an evidentiary issue that it deemed likely to recur on retrial

We now conclude that the Court of Appeals erred by ruling that the trial court was required to admit evidence of consumer claims honored by the tire manufacturer for tires manufactured at the tire plant where the tire involved in this action was manufactured. Without an independent showing of a substantial similarity between the purported tire defect that caused the injuries in this case and the basis for the consumer claims that were honored by the manufacturer, this evidence was inadmissible. Therefore, we reverse that portion of the Court of Appeals' ruling.

In June 1991, Bobby Crosby was driving his wife Jan and his daughter Kelly to his parents' home when the left rear tire of his Bronco II blew out, causing the vehicle to flip over. Bobby Crosby was killed, and Jan and Kelly Crosby were seriously injured. Acting on behalf of herself, as administratrix of Bobby's estate, and as next friend of Kelly, Jan Crosby brought suit against the manufacturer of the left rear tire, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company. Crosby's complaint alleged negligent design, negligent manufacture, failure to warn, violation of the implied warranty of merchantability, and strict liability. The complaint claimed that the wreck was caused by a separation of the tire's radial belting as a result of defective manufacturing. Cooper Tire countered that the subject tire had been driven for more than 30,000 miles, and that the blowout was caused by an impact with a road hazard.

At trial, Crosby sought to introduce evidence of Cooper Tire's "adjustment statistics"—i.e., honored consumer claims—for all tires manufactured at the Cooper Tire Texarkana, Arkansas, tire plant where the purportedly defective tire in this matter was manufactured. [273 Ga. 455] Crosby sought to introduce these adjustment statistics for the nine-year period preceding her accident. Cooper Tire opposed admission of the adjustment statistics, arguing that there was no evidence of a substantial similarity between the tires reflected in the adjustment data and the tire at issue in Crosby's lawsuit. In response, Crosby argued that the adjustment data was admissible without a showing of substantial similarity.3

After considering these arguments, the trial court excluded the proffered adjustment statistics, concluding that the evidence was "generally inadmissible." In November 1997, the case was tried before a jury, and a defendant's verdict was promptly returned.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, and in so doing held that the trial court erred in excluding Cooper Tire's adjustment statistics. This Court granted certiorari, and, for the reasons explained below, we now reverse.

1. The Court of Appeals erred by disregarding the trial court's correct conclusion that the tire adjustment data was inadmissible because Crosby failed to show a substantial similarity between the belt separation alleged to have caused the car wreck in this matter, and the reasons why the tires reflected in the adjustment data were returned by other consumers.

In products liability cases, the "rule of substantial similarity" prohibits the admission into evidence of other transactions, occurrences, or claims unless the proponent first shows that there is a "substantial similarity" between the other transactions, occurrences, or claims and the claim at issue in the litigation.4 The showing of substantial similarity must include a showing of similarity as

543 S.E.2d 24
to causation.5 Before admitting proffered evidence of other transactions in products liability cases, the trial court must satisfy itself that the rule of substantial similarity has been met.6 Thus, in Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. v. Ford, the Court of Appeals has recently held that it was reversible error to admit tire adjustment data in a products liability case without a "showing of similarity of the tires, defects or the causes thereof."7

In this case, Crosby sought to introduce nine years' worth of adjustment data concerning all types of tires manufactured at Cooper Tire's Texarkana manufacturing plant. Crosby made no [273 Ga. 456] showing before the trial court that all of the tires reflected in the adjustment data were the same make and model as the tire involved in the accident at issue. Nor did Crosby show the trial court that the tires reflected in the adjustment data suffered from the same defect as the defect alleged in her suit. Finally, Crosby did not show similarity as to causation between the purported defect in her tire and any defects alleged in the adjusted tires.

Thus, the adjustment evidence was proffered at trial without any showing that: (1) Crosby's tire and the adjusted tires shared a common design and manufacturing process; (2) suffered from a common defect; and (3) that any common defects shared the same causation. Without these showings, it was impossible for the rule of substantial similarity to be satisfied in this matter.8 Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the adjustment data evidence from trial, and the Court of Appeals erred in ruling otherwise.

2. The Court of Appeals also erred by holding that the rule of substantial similarity:

[D]oes not mean that the defects, tires or occurrences must be identical, but only sufficiently substantially similar to be probative so that a jury can reasonably draw an inference of defect, causation, dangerousness, knowledge, producing the tire failure, or failure to warn.... [T]his means [there is] a continuum of admissible substantially similar occurrences, where at one extreme the occurrences were the same and at the other extreme the occurrences were barely sufficient to be substantially similar for admission so as not to be an abuse of discretion.9

We find no precedential directive from this Court (or any other court) to indicate that the admissibility of prior occurrences in products liability cases rests upon a continuum so wide as to include occurrences that are "identical" to the occurrence at issue as well as occurrences that are "barely" similar to the occurrence at issue. Under this extremely broad standard, almost all prior occurrence evidence would be admissible in products liability cases, so long as there was the barest hint of possible similarity between the prior occurrence and the occurrence at issue in litigation. In that situation, a trial court's exclusion of such evidence would almost always be subject to a claim of discretionary abuse by a disgruntled...

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    ...would determine whether, under the facts of the case, the trial court had abused its discretion. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Crosby , 273 Ga. 454, 456-457, 543 S.E.2d 21 (2001) ; see Anglin v. State , 302 Ga. 333, 337, 806 S.E.2d 573 (2017). But here, when the compensation evidence was admi......
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