Bensenberg v. FCA US LLC

Decision Date08 April 2022
Docket Number20-3407
Parties Bradley A. BENSENBERG, Executor of the Estate of Donna J. Bensenberg, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FCA US LLC, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Charles A. Bonner, Attorney, Law Offices of Bonner & Bonner, Sausalito, CA, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Catherine Basque Weiler, Brian W. Bell, Madison Claire Shepley, Attorneys, Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP, Chicago, IL, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before Ripple, Rovner, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

Rovner, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Bradley Bensenberg pursues this diversity action on behalf of his mother's estate seeking to recover on a claim of strict liability for injuries she sustained in a one-car accident in which her vehicle's front airbag did not deploy. The district court granted a motion in limine to exclude the opinion of Bensenberg's expert that the vehicle's airbag was defective, in that the vehicle was likely traveling in excess of the deployment threshold for the airbag when the vehicle struck a concrete post and came to a halt, and yet the airbag failed to deploy. The flaw in the expert's opinion, the court reasoned, was that he did not identify any purported defect in the vehicle's airbag system but simply assumed from the airbag's failure to deploy that it must have had a defect of some unspecified type. The court went on to enter summary judgment in favor of the defendant. We reverse and remand for further proceedings. The opinion of the plaintiff's expert is admissible in order to show that the vehicle was traveling at a rate of speed sufficient to command deployment of the front airbag when it collided with the post. This in turn is sufficient to make a prima facie case of a non-specific defect in the vehicle's airbag system within the parameters that Illinois courts have established for such a defect.

I.

On September 10, 2015, decedent Donna Bensenberg, age 85, was driving her 2008 Chrysler Aspen (a full-sized sport utility vehicle) eastbound on Wolf Road, a two-lane highway, outside of Geneseo, Illinois (about 20 miles east of the Quad Cities). She lost consciousness as the result of a medical episode. Her car drifted across the left lane and entered a grassy ditch running parallel to the highway at a speed that witnesses (including an Illinois State Police officer) placed at between 45 and 65 mph. When the car encountered a raised earthen driveway that crossed the ditch, it became airborne and then returned to ground on the other side of the driveway, and eventually it came to rest upon striking a small concrete post. During the incident, the side-curtain airbag deployed when the vehicle's sensors detected a potential roll-over, but the front airbag did not deploy. Ms. Bensenberg was wearing her seat belt, and the pretensioner (a device designed to pull the seat belt tight in the event of an accident) deployed properly. Nonetheless, there are indications that when the vehicle came to a halt, Ms. Bensenberg's body came into contact with the steering wheel and the area of the dashboard beneath the steering wheel.

As a result of the accident, Ms. Bensenberg suffered an undisplaced fracture

of the second cervical vertebra in her neck. She wore a cervical collar for three months but did not require surgery. She died of unrelated causes three years later, in November 2018.

Ms. Bensenberg filed this suit in 2017 against the car manufacturer, Fiat Chrysler Automotive or FCA US, formerly known as Chrysler Group ("Chrysler"), invoking the district court's diversity jurisdiction. Following his mother's death, Bensenberg stepped into her shoes as the plaintiff in his capacity as the personal representative of her estate. Counts I and II of the Fourth Amended Complaint alleged strict liability claims based on a manufacturing defect and a design defect, respectively, in the airbag system. Counts III through V alleged other theories of liability—strict liability for failure to warn, negligent failure to warn, and negligence—that are not at issue in this appeal. The estate also pursued claims below that the seatbelt system was defective, but those claims too are not raised on appeal.

The estate retained as its expert Bahram Ravani, Ph.D., a Professor in Mechanical Engineering and the Graduate Program in Forensic Sciences and Engineering at the University of California, Davis. Ravani has substantial experience and expertise in accident reconstruction, kinematics, and the biomechanical analysis of personal injury accidents. As relevant here, Ravani opined that, more likely than not, the Chrysler Aspen was traveling at a rate of speed closer to 53 miles per hour—the last speed recorded by the vehicle's event data recorder ("EDR") "black box," which was at or near the moment when the vehicle's side airbag deployed—than to five to 10 miles per hour (which would have been below the front airbag's mandatory deployment threshold) when it struck the concrete post.1 Ravani's estimate of the vehicle's likely speed upon impact thus placed it above the 16 miles per hour must-deploy threshold for the front airbag. Ravani opined that if indeed the vehicle was traveling above the deployment threshold when it struck the post, "then the airbag system was defective in not deploying the airbag in such a high-energy impact." R. 49-5 at 19. The airbag's failure to deploy, Ravani further opined, left the driver unprotected "from contact forces to her body that [we]re the proximal cause of her diagnosed injuries." R. 49-5 at 18. But Ravani was unable to identify any particular component or aspect of the airbag system, including the airbag control unit ("ACU"), that he believed was defective. (The available data from the vehicle's airbag monitoring system revealed no fault in the operation of the airbag system.) His opinion as to the existence of a defect was instead based simply on the fact that the airbag did not deploy under circumstances in which he believed it should have deployed.

On Chrysler's motion, Judge Darrow excluded Ravani's opinion as to the existence of a defect, which she assumed was a purported defect in the design of the airbag. As the judge understood Ravani's reasoning, he surmised from the airbag's failure to deploy at a collision speed that he placed above its mandatory deployment threshold that the airbag must have been defectively designed; but he did not articulate a theory as to how the design of the airbag system was defective. R. 60 at 11. The judge did not quarrel with Ravani's opinion that the impact of the vehicle likely met the deployment threshold for the airbag, "but rather with his jump from this premise to the conclusion that the airbag system was thus defective. Dr. Ravani offers no evidence to establish how the airbag system's design was defective.... He concludes the cause from the effect." R. 60 at 10.

The court then proceeded to grant summary judgment in favor of Chrysler based on the lack of an expert opinion identifying any purported defect in the airbag system. The court reasoned that without expert guidance, a layperson would be unable to evaluate whether the airbag system was unreasonably dangerous as the result of a defect either in the design of the system or in the manufacturing process:

The ... airbag[ ] [is] not [a] simple product[ ]. Although most laymen are familiar with them, how they work in a general sense, and what they aim to prevent, most laymen do not know how they are designed. It is not obvious what ... airbag components are hidden from view, how ... the systems draw information and measure it, how they are affected by other systems in the car, the type of events/forces that trigger them to react, etc. Expert testimony is required to help the trier of fact determine that an airbag ... system, which [is a] complex product[ ], was unreasonably dangerous under the consumer expectations test or the risk-utility test due to a defective design or manufacturing process.

R. 60 at 19.

II.

Bensenberg has made clear on appeal that he is pursuing a claim of manufacturing defect and has abandoned any claim of design defect. His theory is one of a non-specific defect in the airbag. For that purpose, he relies, as he did below, on expert opinion to show that his mother's vehicle was likely traveling above the mandatory deployment threshold for the front airbag but that the airbag nonetheless failed to deploy. As a matter of Illinois law, he believes this evidence supports an inference that the airbag failed to deploy due to a manufacturing defect. He maintains that the district court erred in excluding the opinion of his expert as to the existence of such a defect and in entering summary judgment in favor of Chrysler.

The parties agree that in this diversity action we must look to Illinois law for the substantive legal principles governing Bensenberg's claim. See Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Websolv Computing, Inc. , 580 F.3d 543, 547 (7th Cir. 2009) (federal court hearing case in diversity looks to choice-of-law rules of forum state); Est. of Carey by Carey v. Hy-Temp Mfg., Inc. , 929 F.2d 1229, 1232 (7th Cir. 1991) (under Illinois choice-of-law rules, place of injury supplies governing law unless another state has more significant relationship to occurrence or parties); Speakers of Sport, Inc. v. ProServ, Inc. , 178 F.3d 862, 864 (7th Cir. 1999) ("The parties agree that the substantive issues in this diversity suit are governed by Illinois law, and we do not look behind such agreements so long as they are reasonable, as this one is.") (citing Spinozzi v. ITT Sheraton Corp. , 174 F.3d 842, 849 (7th Cir. 1999) ); Auto-Owners Ins. Co. , 580 F.3d at 547 (same).

A strict liability claim is premised on a defect that renders a product dangerous because the product fails to perform in the manner one reasonably expects it to in light of its nature and intended function. Tweedy v. Wright Ford Sales, Inc. , 64 Ill.2d 570, 2 Ill.Dec. 282, 357 N.E.2d 449, 451 (19...

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