Anderson v. Chrysler Corp., 19666

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Citation403 S.E.2d 189,184 W.Va. 641
Decision Date15 March 1991
Docket NumberNo. 19666,19666
Parties, 15 UCC Rep.Serv.2d 129, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 12,794 Gary W. ANDERSON and Rebecca S. Anderson v. CHRYSLER CORPORATION, a Corporation, and Country Club Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc., a Corporation.

3. Circumstantial evidence may be sufficient to make a prima facie case in a strict liability action, even though the precise nature of the defect cannot be identified, so long as the evidence shows that a malfunction in the product occurred that would not ordinarily happen in the absence of a defect. Moreover, the plaintiff must show there was neither abnormal use of the product nor a reasonable secondary cause for the malfunction.

4. "A plaintiff, who seeks to recover damages for breach of an [express or an] implied warranty for fitness of purpose, is not required to exclude every possible cause for the defective condition of the goods purchased and may establish the defective nature of the goods by circumstantial evidence." Syllabus Point 5, as modified, Jones, Inc. v. W.A. Wiedebusch Plumbing & Heating Co., 157 W.Va. 257, 201 S.E.2d 248 (1973).

Richard E. Hamstead, Edward R. Kohout, Hamstead, Hamstead & Williams, Morgantown, for Gary W. Anderson and Rebecca S. Anderson.

John E. Busch, Busch, Jory, Smith & Talbott, Elkins, for Chrysler Corp.

Jerald E. Jones, West & Jones, Clarksburg, for Country Club Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc.

MILLER, Chief Justice:

Gary Anderson and Rebecca Anderson, his wife, the plaintiffs below, appeal a final order of the Circuit Court of Harrison County, entered March 9, 1990. The Andersons contend that the trial court erred when it granted the motion of Chrysler Corporation (the manufacturer) and Country Club Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc. (the

[184 W.Va. 643] dealership) 1 for directed verdict. The issue on appeal is whether, in a products liability action, a plaintiff can make a prima facie case with only circumstantial evidence.

I. Facts

On September 15, 1980, the Andersons purchased a new 1980 Chrysler Cordoba from the dealership. While driving home from the showroom, the Andersons noticed several problems with the car, including malfunctions of its brake lights, headlights, and radio. The following day, the Andersons returned the car to the dealership, where the car was allegedly repaired. However, the electrical problems persisted, and during the following four months, the Andersons had to have the car serviced six to eight times. 2 Within four weeks of the date of purchase, the car's wiring harness, which is located underneath the dashboard, had to be replaced.

The car was last serviced by the dealership on December 22, 1980. As in the past, the car's headlights and brake lights were not operating properly, the radio was fading in and out, and the door chimes were malfunctioning. The next day, after being informed by an employee of the dealership that the car had been fixed, Mrs. Anderson picked it up.

Mrs. Anderson immediately noticed the same electrical problems, but decided to wait until after Christmas before having the car serviced once again. Within a few hours, while driving near Monongah, West Virginia, the Andersons detected a burning odor coming from the car. Soon thereafter, they saw smoke rising from underneath the dashboard. Flames quickly followed. Within minutes, the car was engulfed by fire and completely destroyed.

The Andersons asked Chrysler on numerous occasions to either replace the destroyed vehicle with a new car or refund the purchase price. Chrysler refused. Left with no other alternative, the Andersons filed suit alleging five causes of action: (1) breach of express warranty; (2) breach of implied warranty of merchantability; (3) negligent repair; (4) violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty--Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act (Magnuson-Moss Act), 15 U.S.C. § 2301, et seq; and (5) strict liability in tort. 3

At trial, Mrs. Anderson and Captain Mark Tenney of the Monongah Volunteer Fire Department testified. 4 Mrs. Anderson testified about the initial and continuous problems with the vehicle's electrical system. Moreover, she testified that the vehicle had been repaired exclusively by the dealership and that the car had been serviced by the dealership on the day before it caught fire. Captain Tenney, after being qualified as a trained fireman, testified about the general characteristics of electrical fires. Because Captain Tenney had not been present when the car caught fire and had not inspected the vehicle after it was destroyed, the trial court refused to allow him to give his opinion as to the fire's origin.

After presenting these two witnesses, the plaintiffs rested. Chrysler immediately made a motion for a directed verdict. The trial court granted Chrysler's motion because the Andersons had not presented direct evidence of the specific defect in the car that caused the fire.

II. Directed Verdict

When a plaintiff's evidence does not establish a prima facie right of recovery, the defendant's motion for directed verdict should be granted. Totten v. Adongay "Upon a motion to direct a verdict for the defendant, every reasonable and legitimate inference fairly arising from the testimony, when considered in its entirety, must be indulged in favorably to plaintiff; and the court must assume as true those facts which the jury may properly find under the evidence."

                --- [184 W.Va. 644] 175 W.Va. 634, 337 S.E.2d 2d 2 (1985);  Hinkle v. Martin, 163 W.Va. 482, 256 S.E.2d 768 (1979);  Pinfold v. Hendricks, 155 W.Va. 489, 184 S.E.2d 731 (1971).  "However, it is equally established that a claim should remain within the hands of the jury unless manifest insufficiencies in the evidence compel otherwise."  Totten v. Adongay, 175 W.Va. at 635, 337 S.E.2d at 3.   As we held in the Syllabus of Nichols v. Raleigh-Wyoming Coal Co., 112 W.Va. 85, 163 S.E. 767 (1932)
                

See also Boyce v. Lopez, 183 W.Va. 169, 394 S.E.2d 768 (1990); Criss v. Criss, 177 W.Va. 749, 356 S.E.2d 620 (1987); Covey v. Fields, 177 W.Va. 481, 354 S.E.2d 413 (1987).

With these standards in mind, we turn to whether the plaintiffs' evidence, taken in the most favorable light, established a prima facie case. Although the Andersons asserted a wide range of theories in their complaint, the evidence at trial focused on three of those theories--strict liability in tort and breach of express and implied warranty.

III. Strict Liability in Tort

The seminal case in West Virginia on strict liability in tort is Morningstar v. Black & Decker Manufacturing Co., 162 W.Va. 857, 253 S.E.2d 666 (1979). In Morningstar, we announced a general test for establishing a cause of action based on strict liability: "whether the involved product is defective in the sense that it is not reasonably safe for its intended use." Syllabus Point 4, in part. In Syllabus Point 3 of Morningstar, we summarized the general theory of a strict liability in tort cause of action:

"The cause of action covered by the term 'strict liability in tort' is designed to relieve the plaintiff from proving that the manufacturer was negligent in some particular fashion during the manufacturing process and to permit proof of the defective condition of the product as the principal basis of liability."

Three years later, in Star Furniture Co. v. Pulaski Furniture Co., 171 W.Va. 79, 297 S.E.2d 854 (1982), we considered whether strict liability in tort should be available when the recovery sought is solely for property damage as opposed to situations where some physical injury is occasioned by the defective product. In Star Furniture, the store was damaged by a fire caused by a defective clock that Star Furniture had purchased from Pulaski Furniture. In Syllabus Point 1 of Star Furniture, supra, we held: "Strict liability in tort may be used to recover for property damage when the defective product damages property only." We did limit recovery for property damage caused by a defective product to situations where the damage was attributable to a "sudden calamitous event." Syllabus Point 3, in part, Star Furniture Co. v. Pulaski Furniture Co., supra. 5

In Capitol Fuels, Inc. v. Clark Equipment Co., 181 W.Va. 258, 382 S.E.2d 311 (1989), recovery was sought for damages to a front-end loader that caught fire because of a defective design. We were asked to reconsider our holding in Star Furniture in light of the United States Supreme Court's decision in East River Steamship Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 106 S.Ct. 2295, 90 L.Ed.2d 865 (1986). 6 We declined the invitation and reiterated Chrysler argues that the above-quoted language in Capitol Fuels dictates the outcome of this case. Chrysler contends that Capitol Fuels established a two-part test: (1) whether there was a calamitous event, and (2) if so, whether that event was caused by a defect in design or manufacture of the product. Although there is no doubt here that the fire was a calamitous event, Chrysler argues, and indeed the trial court found, that the Andersons failed to prove that a defect in the car caused the fire.

[184 W.Va....

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