Engberg v. Ford Motor Co., 11012

CourtSupreme Court of South Dakota
Citation87 S.D. 196,205 N.W.2d 104
Docket NumberNo. 11012,11012
PartiesFrances J. ENGBERG, Executrix of the Estate of Laurel A. Engberg, Deceased, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a corporation, Defendant and Appellant.
Decision Date08 March 1973
Woods, Fuller, Shultz & Smith and H. L. Fuller, Sioux Falls, for defendant and appellant

Whiting, Lynn, Jackson, Shultz, Ireland & Lebrun, and Melvin D. Wedmore, Rapid City, for plaintiff and respondent.

WINANS, Justice.

The plaintiff, Frances J. Engberg, brought this action against the defendant, Ford Motor Company 1, to recover damages for [87 S.D. 199] the death of her husband, Laurel A. Engberg. In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that her husband's death was caused by defects in a seat belt of the automobile manufactured by the defendant. The case was tried to a jury on theories of negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. The jury resolved the issues in favor of the plaintiff and assessed the damages at $15,000. Judgment was entered in accordance with their verdict and the defendant has appealed.

Viewing the record in the light most advantageous to the plaintiff-respondent, as we must, the following facts appear: On or about October 1, 1965, the decedent, Laurel Engberg, purchased a new Ford station wagon from Oines Motor Company of Brookings. Two weeks later, the decedent was involved in a fatal accident just outside of Rapid City. The decedent was alone in his automobile at the time and there were no other cars involved in the accident. The precise cause of the accident was never determined. The evidence indicated that the station wagon left the highway and rolled in the ditch for a considerable distance. The evidence further disclosed that the decedent's body was found on the ground about midway between

the place where the vehicle started to roll and where it finally came to a stop. The seat belt on the driver's side was found buckled but broken and there was no evidence of blood inside the car. Moreover, the driver's compartment of the station wagon remained essentially intact after the accident

At the trial, the plaintiff through expert testimony introducted evidence that the design of the seat belt was defective and that said defect was the proximate cause of the decedent's death. The plaintiff called as a witness Dr. V. R. Nelson, a professor of physics, who has had a considerable amount of experience in accident reconstruction. Dr. Nelson testified that the seat belt served in this case because the boot and belt were rubbing on the frame of the seat causing them to give way under the pressure of less than expectable force. He also stated that in his opinion, the design of the assembly and the installation of the belt was improper to prevent the rubbing that caused the severance. He further testified, over the defendant's objection, that the absence of internal damage to the vehicle indicated that the fatal injury [87 S.D. 200] occurred outside of the car and that had the seat belt remained intact and the decedent remain inside the car, the amount of injury would have been minor.

The plaintiff also called as a witness the Pennington County coroner, George Behrens, who had investigated the accident. Behrens testified that the cause of the decedent's death was a basal skull fracture secondary to a crushed chest. Over the defendant's objection, he concluded that the fatal injury occurred when the decedent struck his head on the ground after being ejected from the station wagon.

Adolph Lee, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, was qualified as an expert witness by the defendant. In contrast with Dr. Nelson's opinion, Lee testified that the boot and seat belt could not in any way come into contact with the frame of the seat. Lee also testified that based upon the type and location of the cut, it was his opinion that the seat belt had been served by the metal capsule that ties together the wires of the seat and that the capsule had been moved from where it was originally installed by the manufacturer.

Other evidence significant to this appeal suggested that the decedent had failed to properly adjust his seat belt prior to the accident. From pictures of the served seat belt, one of the defendant's witnesses reconstructed the length of the decedent's seat belt as it was adjusted at the time of the accident. In a car with seats and seat belts identical to those in the decedent's station wagon, the witness adjusted his seat belt to the same length as the decedent's belt was at the time of the accident. Although his waist was three inches larger than the decedent's, the witness stated that the distance from his abdomen to the back of the belt was 4 1/2 inches and with that much slack, his body could slide outboard of the sill of the door some nine inches in an upright position.

On appeal, the defendant's basic contention is that the trial court should have granted its motion for a directed verdict or entered judgment n.o.v. As discussed below, the basis of the defendant's contention is that plaintiff's evidence with respect to [87 S.D. 201] two elements of her cause of action was insufficient to send the case to the jury. In considering sufficiency of the evidence on appeal, we are required to view the evidence and the inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to upholding the verdict. Chleboun v. Varilek, 1965, 81 S.D. 421, 136 N.W.2d 348; Vander Vorste v. Northwestern National Bank, 1965, 81 S.D. 566, 138 N.W.2d 411.


The defendant first complains that there was insufficient evidence of a defect in the seat belt.

Before there could be a recovery under any of the three theories of products liability, the plaintiff had the burden of proving that the product was defective at a time when the defendant had possession, control, or responsibility for its condition. 63 Am.Jur.2d, Products Liability, § 10, p. 20. A product is deemed defective when it is not reasonably fit for the purpose for which it was intended to be used. Larsen v. General Motors Corporation, 1968, 8 Cir., 391 F.2d 495.

The only evidence of a defect in the seat belt was presented by the plaintiff's expert witness, Dr. Nelson. As indicated above, Dr. Nelson testified that the seat belt severed under low pressure due to its defective design. The defendant argues, however, that his opinion should have been disregarded for the reason that it was contradicted by undisputed physical facts.

It is true that the opinion of an expert witness may properly be disregarded where the premises upon which it is based are opposed to unquestioned physical facts. Podio v. American Colloid Co., 1968, 83 S.D. 528, 162 N.W.2d 385. In the present case, however, it cannot be said that the opinion of the plaintiff's expert was contradicted by undisputed physical facts. The most that can be said is that there was a conflict between the opinions of the plaintiff's expert and the defendant's expert. Acceptance or rejection of the expert testimony of either was a matter for the jury and their determination will not be disturbed.


The defendant next contends that the plaintiff failed to prove that the alleged defect in the seat belt was the proximate cause of the decedent's death. In support of this argument, the defendant argues that based upon the evidence presented, it was speculation to conclude that the decedent died after his seat belt severed or that he would have survived if his seat belt had remained intact.

In this case, the circumstances of the accident precluded a direct determination of the cause of manner or the decedent's death. Therefore, to sustain her burden of proof on the issue of causation, the plaintiff was compelled to rely on the expert opinions of Dr. Nelson and George Behrens. As indicated above, both witnesses expressed the opinion that the decedent received the fatal injury after his seat belt severed and he was ejected from his station wagon. Dr Nelson also expressed the opinion that Engberg would have survived if his seat belt had remained intact. The opinions of both witnesses were based upon proven facts and thus were not a matter of conjecture.

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