Beatty v. Trailmaster Products, Inc.

Decision Date01 September 1992
Docket NumberNo. 134,134
Citation330 Md. 726,625 A.2d 1005
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 13,489 Linda Anne BEATTY, Personal Representative of the Estate of Christopher Lee Beatty, etc. v. TRAILMASTER PRODUCTS, INC. et al. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

C. Robert Loskot (Charles G. Bernstein, Bernstein, Sakellaris & Ward, all on brief), Baltimore, for appellants.

John J. Boyd, Jr. (Smith, Somerville & Case, Baltimore), Charles F. Obrecht, Jr. (Obrecht and Obrecht, Severna Park), all on brief, for appellees.


MURPHY, Chief Judge.

This case presents a challenge to the entry of a summary judgment in a tort action in favor of three corporate defendants who designed, manufactured, or sold an automobile "Lift Kit" device which had been installed on a motor vehicle subsequently involved in a serious two-car crash. Central to the proper disposition of the case is a provision of Maryland Code (1987 Repl.Vol.), § 22-105(c) of the Transportation Article, which specifies that a Class M (multipurpose) vehicle may not be operated on any highway in the State "with a bumper that exceeds a height of 28 inches."


On July 17, 1987, Christopher Lee Beatty's 1981 Honda Civic was involved in a highway collision with a 1982 Ford Bronco operated by Allan Michael Smith. The suspension of the Bronco had been elevated by means of a F-1540 "Lift Kit" which raised its front bumper from the automobile manufacturer's design of 19 inches to approximately 24 inches above the ground. When the vehicles collided, Smith's Bronco rode up onto the hood of Beatty's Honda, crushing the front part of the Honda and pinning Beatty's legs in the driver's side footwell. Beatty sustained serious injuries in the accident; subsequently, he died. 1

After Beatty's death, his wife, acting as personal representative of his estate, and on behalf of herself and two minor children (the plaintiffs), sued Smith; Alpa, Inc., an automobile parts distributor; and Trailmaster Products, Inc. and Hall Brothers of Michigan, Inc., alleged designers and manufacturers of the F-1540 Lift Kit. Wrongful death and survival actions were instituted against Smith, based on his alleged negligent driving. 2 The damage actions against the corporate defendants, in four counts, were for wrongful death and survival, based on strict products liability in designing, manufacturing, and selling a defective and unreasonably dangerous product, and with negligence in marketing a foreseeably unsafe product.

The complaint recited that sometime before November 24, 1982, Trailmaster and Hall designed, manufactured, and placed into commerce an F-1540 Lift Kit that either directly or through a distributor reached Alpa in Maryland. The complaint described a Lift Kit as "a set of parts and devices intended to alter the suspension of a motor vehicle by lifting or elevating the chassis and body of the motor vehicle higher above the ground than the motor vehicle was designed to ride by its manufacturer." The complaint averred that the Lift Kit was designed for use on motor vehicles when they are driven off-road, on rough, or irregular or uneven terrain. The complaint next recited that the Lift Kit "alters the suspension of the motor vehicle to such a height that the bumper, fenders, and vehicle body rest in a horizontal plane much higher than the bumper, fenders, and vehicle body of a truck or automobile whose suspension has not been altered by use of a Lift Kit." According to the complaint, the Lift Kit "alters the engineering dynamics and mechanics to such an extent that when a motor vehicle with altered suspension is driven on a public highway and is involved in a crash with a motor vehicle without altered suspension, the bumpers and fenders do not meet, and the bumper, fenders, and entire body of the vehicle with altered suspension override the entire body of the unaltered vehicle, with the result that there is intrusion of the altered vehicle's bumper, fenders, and body directly into the passenger compartment of the unaltered vehicle." The complaint charged that Alpa sold the Lift Kit to Smith on or about November 24, 1982 for installation on his 1982 Ford Bronco.

Plaintiffs' strict liability claims against the three corporate defendants averred that the Lift Kit was "defective and unreasonably dangerous because it raised the bumper height of the vehicle on which it was installed to a height that would cause the vehicle to ride over another vehicle in a collision"; and was further defective for failure of the corporate defendants "to warn consumers and users of the product of its defective and unreasonably dangerous condition."

As to the negligence counts against the corporate defendants, the complaint averred that they had a duty, which they failed to exercise, "to design, test, and inspect the Lift Kit so as to render it free of defects and reasonably safe for its reasonably foreseeable and intended uses, and to warn consumers and users of the Lift Kit of any defects and unreasonably dangerous conditions."

The corporate defendants moved for summary judgment. They claimed that the plaintiffs' sole contention of defect relating to the F-1540 Lift Kit was that it raised the bumper of the Bronco to a height that would cause it to ride over another vehicle in a collision. The defendants asserted in their motions that the bumper height on the Bronco was in compliance with Code (1987 Repl.Vol.), § 22-105 of the Transportation Article, which sets a maximum bumper height of 28 inches for a multipurpose vehicle like the 1982 Bronco. 3 The defendants asserted that the legislature adopted this standard as a safe bumper height and, in so acting, "clearly contemplated possible hazards associated with disparate bumper heights in vehicle collisions." They maintained that since the plaintiffs "failed to produce evidence of any special circumstances or dangers beyond those addressed by the statute, compliance with the statute precludes a finding of defect or negligence" as a matter of law.

In support of the summary judgment motions was the affidavit of Dr. James A. Kirk, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. It was thereby shown that, after the 1987 collision, Smith's insurer declared the Bronco a total loss; that Trailmaster asked Dr. Kirk to replicate the Bronco; that Kirk and his team recreated the vehicle precisely as it existed at the time of the accident, using the same model Bronco, similar tires, and an identical F-1540 Lift Kit. It was further shown in the affidavit that the Ford Motor Company was contacted to ascertain and duplicate the original Bronco's gross vehicular weight rating (GVWR). Thereafter, Kirk moved the replica to a level surface and measured its bumpers in accordance with the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) for vehicle inspection. 4 Kirk determined the height of the front bumper to be 23-5/8 inches at its center, 24-7/8 inches at its right end, and 25 inches at its left end. 5

In opposition to the summary judgment motions, the plaintiffs filed the affidavit of David O. McAllister, an "accident reconstruction consultant." He held a Bachelor of Science degree in Transportation and was formerly a traffic engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Since 1974, he had supervised a team of private accident investigators; he claimed to have participated in the reconstruction of nearly a thousand motor vehicle crashes.

In his affidavit, McAllister said that, having investigated the accident between Smith's Bronco and Beatty's Honda, the Bronco had in fact overridden the hood of the Honda and caused more extensive injury than it would have without the Lift Kit. He opined that a vehicle equipped with a Lift Kit was foreseeably unsafe and unreasonably dangerous insofar as it would predictably override the bumper and hood of a vehicle with which it crashed, such as Beatty's Honda, and intrude into the passenger compartment. McAllister specifically stated that

a bumper that exceeds 24 inches violates standards promulgated by the Vehicle Equipment Safety Commission (VESC), a former standard by the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA), a trade association, and by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA).

Under the distinct impression that Smith's Bronco may have violated published safety standards, the trial court (DeWaters, J.) denied the motions for summary judgment.

Thereafter, on October 22, 1991, the defendants deposed McAllister. They had obtained from him a copy of the VESC standard he had referred to in his affidavit, entitled "Regulation VESC-12: Minimum Requirements for Construction and Equipment of Specialty Motor Vehicles." The VESC standard provided that the maximum recommended bumper height of a vehicle with a GVWR of less than 4,500 pounds was 24 inches; for vehicles between 4,501 and 7,500 pounds, the standard was 27 inches. In his deposition, McAllister acknowledged that the GVWR of the 1982 Ford Bronco was somewhere between 5,400 and 6,300 pounds. McAllister also admitted that the SEMA and AAMVA standards he had mentioned in his affidavit were derived from and, with respect to the 1982 Bronco, were identical to the VESC standard. Thus, McAllister conceded in his deposition that he was mistaken in his affidavit concerning a 24-inch standard, and that Smith's Bronco, in fact, complied with the relevant 27-inch VESC, SEMA, and AAMVA safety standards. 6

As to the altered Bronco's dangerousness, McAllister maintained that "I don't necessarily believe or think that the [27-inch] VESC-12 standard is the safest. I think it is too liberal. I think it is too high." McAllister cited no scientific studies to support his opinion that the VESC standard was inadequate, nor did he indicate that others in the field of automobile safety shared his view. He simply insisted...

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