Anton v. Ford Motor Company

Decision Date03 July 1975
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 74-183.
Citation400 F. Supp. 1270
PartiesPandora ANTON et al., Plaintiffs, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Ohio

Harold E. Gottlieb, Zanesville, Ohio, for plaintiffs.

Edgar A. Strause, Columbus, Ohio, for defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

DUNCAN, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon defendant Ford Motor Company's motion for summary judgment. The Court has the benefit of the briefs of the parties and of an agreed statement of facts. The questions presented are whether Ohio law, which the parties agree governs in this diversity action, imposes a duty of safe design upon the manufacturers of automobiles, and, if so, whether the complaint sufficiently alleges a breach of such a duty. These questions have not been answered by the Supreme Court of Ohio in any opinion cited to or discovered by this Court, so that this case thrusts upon the Court "the hazards of prophecy"1 as to how Ohio's highest bench would decide the same issues. The problem is compounded by the fact that the questions presented herein have of late been hotly debated in the courts and by the commentators.2 It is appropriate at the outset of this opinion to set out Dean Prosser's comment:

The current lively controversy over automobile design is over whether the maker is under a duty to make the car `crashworthy,' or in other words, to prevent injury from what has been called the `second collision,' when the plaintiff comes in contact with some part of the automobile after the crash. The greater number of decisions have denied any duty to protect against the consequences of collisions, on the rather specious ground that collision is not the intended use of the car, but is an abnormal use which relieves the maker of responsibility. It is, however, clearly a forseeable danger arising out of the intended use; and it cannot be expected that this reasoning will continue to hold. In a small number of late decisions, the duty has been recognized, and the driver or passenger has been allowed to recover.

W. Prosser, The Law of Torts § 96, at 646 (4th ed. 1971) (footnotes omitted).

Defendant Ford Motor Company may prevail on its motion for summary judgment only if there exists no dispute concerning a material issue of fact and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). See also Houk v. Ross, 34 Ohio St.2d 77, 296 N.E.2d 266 (1973).

The facts stipulated by the parties may be rather briefly stated. On April 29, 1972, plaintiff Pandora Anton was riding in the right rear seat of a 1972 three-door Ford "Pinto Runabout" automobile driven by her brother-in-law, Jack Dodrill. Also in the car were Dodrill's wife, in the front right seat, and his daughter, in the left rear seat. The Pinto, compact or sub-compact in size, was purchased new from a Ford dealership by Mr. Dodrill in November of 1971. It had been driven approximately 7,000 or 8,000 miles at the time the collision occurred. The vehicle was proceeding in an easterly direction on West Main Street in Hebron, Ohio, at a speed of from 35-40 miles per hour, when it was struck from the rear by a 1969 Ford "LTD" station wagon which was proceeding in the same direction at a speed in excess of 75 miles per hour. The impact caused the rear window frame and glass to pop out of the vehicle, and it ruptured the gasoline tank causing gasoline to be spewed upon the highway. Pandora Anton was thrown out of the Pinto through the rear window opening and came to rest on the pavement, where she sustained burn injuries from the fuel which had escaped the Pinto and ignited. The other occupants of the Pinto did not sustain burn injuries.

The parties also stipulate that for purposes of this motion for summary judgment "the Court may assume as part of said statement of facts proof in behalf of plaintiff, which is disputed by defendant, that some other design involving the gas tank and/or rear bumper would have prevented rupture of the gas tank of the 1972 Pinto (Dodrill car) as a result of a rear-end collision causing an impacting force equivalent to that to which the Dodrill car was subjected in connection with the accident described herein and asserting the inadequacy of the design of the gas tank and/or rear bumper." The stipulation of facts also includes the statement, "The material specifications, manufacturing process and general positioning of the fuel tank, as well as the positioning, size and manner of mounting the rear bumper of the 1972 Pinto involved herein was the same as used by the Ford Motor Company in the construction and manufacture of all 1972 Pinto models, and similar or comparable to fuel tanks and rear bumpers on other car models of the same relative size (compact and sub-compact) manufactured by other American manufacturers, such as Vega, Gremlin, Valiant, Dart and Chevelle."

I. PRODUCTS LIABILITY DECISIONS OF THE SUPREME COURT OF OHIO

What began at the turn of the century as an "assault upon the citadel"3 of privity has developed into a national trend of imposing liability upon the manufacturers of defective products intended for consumer purchases "to insure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves."4 A review of the decisions of the Supreme Court of Ohio reveals that Ohio has been at the forefront of those states which have shaped the format of modern products liability law.

Sicard v. Kremer, 133 Ohio St. 291, 13 N.E.2d 250 (1938) was an action brought by a cosmetician against the distributor of a hair dye which allegedly contained a poisonous substance which caused the plaintiff to develop dermatitis. The plaintiff alleged breach of contract warranty and negligence. The Court without dissent upheld the judgment against the distributor, although it observed at the outset, "Whether there was privity of contract between plaintiff and defendant does not clearly appear." 133 Ohio St. at 293, 13 N.E.2d at 251. The Court stated the law of Ohio to be as follows in the case of a sale of goods:

The buyer of a product not only has a contractual right that the product will be as warranted, express or implied, but the further common-law right not to be harmed or injured by some unknown ingredient or defect when the product is used in the manner intended.
* * * * * *
Even though there be no purchase price, one has no right to bestow an article containing a hidden danger on another as a gift, knowing that the use thereof by such other will cause the latter injury. But where there is consideration, the responsibility to refrain from including in any such article any hidden danger is very much greater. There is the obligation that the goods will be fit for the particular purpose intended and the further duty to refrain from including therein any hidden danger unknown to the buyer. Failure to meet the first obligation is a breach of warranty, express or implied; failure to meet the second duty is negligence.
* * * * * *
Where the product is manufactured and sold with the knowledge that it will come into contact with the user or operator, the manufacturer or distributor has not only the obligation that the product will be according to the contract, express or implied, but the added common-law duty of not placing or having anything in the product that will injure the buyer when used as intended.

133 Ohio St. at 293-94, 298, 13 N.E.2d at 252. The Court cast a liberal eye upon the kinds of damages which might be recovered in such an action, holding that "all damages, whether to the person or business, proximately resulting from such injury, are provable," including those arising from "pain, mental anguish, inability to perform her own household work, or inability properly to carry on her business." 133 Ohio St. at 299, 13 N.E.2d at 254. The Court went on to reject the defendant's contention that the manufacturer should be solely liable. 133 Ohio St. at 300-301, 13 N. E.2d 250. Sicard is an early case in the developing law of products liability, and can certainly be distinguished from the modern doctrine of strict liability in tort;5 nevertheless, with its imposition of duty and its choice of language it stands as a remarkable harbinger of subsequent decisions of the Court.

Twenty years after Sicard the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a products liability decision "which immediately upon its rendition was recognized as having landmark status." Anno, 75 A.L.R.2d 39, 84 (1961). The case was Rogers v. Toni Home Permanent Co., 167 Ohio St. 244, 147 N.E.2d 612, 75 A.L.R.2d 103 (1958). The Supreme Court of Ohio was later to make the following observation concerning Toni:

Ohio has already contributed one landmark case — Rogers v. Toni Permanent Co., supra, that is respected and followed widely in the field of products liability. It was an instance of Ohio leadership in a mass of difficult legal questions. The principle laid down in Toni has been a strong arm of the law in its development to keep pace with the remarkable economic growth of our country during the past one-half century.

Inglis v. American Motors Corp., 3 Ohio St.2d 132, 141, 209 N.E.2d 583, 588 (1965).

The plaintiff in Toni alleged that she had her mother give a permanent wave to her (plaintiff's) hair using one of the defendant's home permanent kits. The result of the use of the kit, which was labeled "Very Gentle," was allegedly that plaintiff's hair was caused "to assume a cotton-like texture and become gummy; that her hair refused to dry; and that when the curlers furnished by defendant were attempted to be removed, her hair fell off to within one-half inch of her scalp." 167 Ohio St. at 244, 147 N.E.2d at 613. The holding of Toni was that a consumer could sue the manufacturer of a product for breach of express warranties arising from published advertisements, although no privity of contract...

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