Ford Motor Company v. Gibson, S07A1365.

CourtSupreme Court of Georgia
Writing for the CourtMelton
Citation659 S.E.2d 346,283 Ga. 398
PartiesFORD MOTOR COMPANY v. GIBSON et al. Gibson et al. v. Ford Motor Company. Draw-Tite, Inc. v. Gibson et al. Gibson et al. v. Draw-Tite, Inc.
Docket NumberNo. S07X1389.,No. S07X1368.,No. S07A1367.,No. S07A1365.,S07A1365.,S07X1389.,S07A1367.,S07X1368.
Decision Date28 March 2008
659 S.E.2d 346
283 Ga. 398
GIBSON et al.
Gibson et al.
Ford Motor Company.
Draw-Tite, Inc.
Gibson et al.
Gibson et al.
Draw-Tite, Inc.
No. S07A1365.
No. S07X1389.
No. S07A1367.
No. S07X1368.
Supreme Court of Georgia.
March 28, 2008.

[659 S.E.2d 348]

Frank Faison Middleton IV, Watson, Spence, Lowe and Chambless, LLP, James Barton Manley Jr., Charles Kyle Reed, Jill Cox Kuhn, McKenna Long & Aldridge, LLP, Bradley Wilkes Pratt, Carmen Rosario Toledo, Chilton D. Varner, King & Spalding, Atlanta, Joseph K. Reid III, McGuire Woods, LLP, Richmond, for Appellant in no. S07A1365, Appellees in nos. S07X1389, S07A1367 and S07X1368.

James E. Butler Jr., Butler Wooten & Fryhofer, Columbus, Robert Feagle, George W. Fryhofer III, Alan John Hamilton, Bulter Wooten Overby Fryhofer Daugherty, Atlanta, Andrew J. Hill III, Josh Brian Wages, Blasingame Burch Garrard Bryant & Ashley, Athens, Gregory Robert Feagle, Butler Wooten & Fryhofer, Atlanta, for Appellee in nos. S07A1365, S07A1367 S07X1368, Appellant in nos. S07X1368 S07X1389.

William R. Johnson, Alexander T. Galloway III, Angela Harrison Smith, Moore, Ingram, Johnson & Steele, LLP, Marietta, for appellant in no. S07A1367, appellee in no. S07A1368.

William F. King, Jr., McGuire Wood, LLP, Richmond, VA, William D. Barwick, Deborah Morris Danzig, Carla Wong McMillian, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, LLP, Atlanta, Frank Faison Middleton IV, Watson, Spence, Lowe and Chambliss, LLP, Albany, Chilton D. Varner, King & Spalding, Atlanta, for Appellee in nos. S07A1367, S07X1368.

MELTON, Justice.

These multiple appeals arise from a jury verdict in favor of Artumus Gibson, as the surviving spouse and Administrator of his wife's estate (hereinafter collectively "Gibson"), against William Burns, Ford Motor Company ("Ford"), and Draw-Tite, Inc. ("Draw-Tite"), in connection with a car accident that resulted in his wife's death. In Case No. S07A1365, Ford challenges the trial court's order requiring Ford to produce certain crash-test documents during discovery and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the trial court in connection with Ford's failure to produce these documents; the trial court's [283 Ga. 399] conclusion that Gibson's claims survived Georgia's statute of repose (OCGA § 51-1-11); the jury's verdict on Gibson's failure-to-warn claim; and the trial court's charge on proximate cause. In Case No. S07A1367, Draw-Tite contends that the trial court erred in ruling that OCGA § 24-9-67.1 (admissibility of scientific expert opinion testimony in civil actions) was unconstitutional as applied in this case; improperly applied the "enhanced injury" doctrine at trial; erred in denying Draw-Tite's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict; and improperly allowed the rehabilitation of biased jurors. In cross appeals S07X1368 and S07X1389, Gibson appeals the trial court's grant of partial summary judgment to Draw-Tite on Gibson's design-defect and punitive-damages claims. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in Case No. S07A1365, affirm in part and vacate in part in Case No. S07A1367, and dismiss cross appeals S07X1368 and S07X1389.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the record reveals that, on February 12, 1999, Burns drove a Toyota truck into the back of a 1985 Mercury Marquis

659 S.E.2d 349

being driven by Anne Marie Gibson. At the time of the accident, Burns was driving fifty to sixty miles per hour, and Ms. Gibson's car, preparing to make a left turn, was at a complete stop. The collision forced Ms. Gibson's car into oncoming traffic, where it was hit by another truck. A trailer hitch manufactured by Draw-Tite was attached to the rear of Ms. Gibson's car by two bolts, and the sharp ends of the two bolts were facing the fuel tank located behind the rear axle of the car. The force of the impact from the collisions thrust the two bolts through the fuel tank of Ms. Gibson's car, and the doors of the car jammed shut during the collisions. A post-collision fire erupted, and the fuel tank of Ms. Gibson's car exploded. Ms. Gibson's seat back collapsed, pulling her head into the flames that had erupted in the back seat of her car. Rescuers eventually unjammed Ms. Gibson's car door and retrieved her from the vehicle, but she died at the scene due to her exposure to the fire and from smoke inhalation.

Ms. Gibson's husband sued Burns, Ford, and Draw-Tite in connection with his wife's death. With respect to Ford, Gibson claimed that the Mercury Marquis' fuel system was defectively designed due to its location behind the car's rear axle; that the driver's seat back and the car doors were defectively designed; and that Ford wrongfully failed to warn Ms. Gibson of these defects that, combined with the dangerous hitch from Draw-Tite, ultimately caused the fuel tank explosion and other events that led to Ms. Gibson's death. Gibson made several products-liability claims against Draw-Tite for its allegedly defective trailer hitch, and claimed that Draw-Tite failed to [283 Ga. 400] warn Ms. Gibson about the dangers of its hitch — dangers of which Draw-Tite allegedly had knowledge.1 Gibson claimed that Burns was liable for negligence.

During discovery, Gibson made several requests for documents relating to Ford's rear crash testing of bumper fuel tank car designs and tests relating to seat back performance.2 Ford refused to produce certain crash test documents relating to prior litigation, claiming that they were attorney work product.3 The trial court found that Gibson had established a substantial need for the documents and that a substantial equivalent of the documents could not otherwise be obtained without undue hardship, and, after an in camera review, ordered Ford to produce the documents. Ford, however, still refused. Ford invited the trial court to find it in contempt for failing to produce the documents so that it could immediately appeal. Instead of finding Ford in contempt, however, the trial court, finding Ford's excuse for non-compliance with its orders to be "unreasonable," opted to sanction Ford by precluding it from contesting certain issues at trial. Specifically, the court ordered that

[t]he following facts shall be taken as established for purposes of this action and Ford Motor Company will be precluded from contesting: (1) that Ford Motor Company defectively designed the fuel system and seats on the subject vehicle; (2) that the fuel system and seats were susceptible to failure in rear impact collisions; (3) that the acts and omissions of Ford Motor Company in connection with the design, manufacture and sale of the fuel system and seats of the subject vehicle [met the exception to the statute of repose, OCGA § 51-1-11(c), in that they] amount to a willful, reckless, or wanton disregard for life or property;4 and (4) [283 Ga. 401] that Ford

659 S.E.2d 350

Motor Company failed to adequately warn consumers, including Mrs. Gibson, of these dangers.

Following the trial, the jury found in favor of Gibson and against Ford and Draw-Tite jointly and severally on all liability claims, awarding 13 million in compensatory damages. As to Burns, the jury found in favor of Gibson on his negligence claim, but also found that Burns had demonstrated a rational basis to apportion damages in light of the product failures during the accident. The jury thus limited Burns' share of the damages to 5,000. The jury rejected Gibson's claim for punitive damages against Ford.

Case No. S07A1365

1. Ford argues that the trial court erred by ordering the production of crash-test documents relating to prior litigation, as such documents, created at the request of Ford's attorneys, constituted attorney work product, and Gibson had not shown a substantial need for the documents and undue hardship if he were required to obtain a substantial equivalent of the documents by other means. See OCGA § 9-11-26(b)(3). Although it is true that OCGA § 9-11-26(b)(3) permits the discovery of documents prepared in anticipation of litigation only in carefully limited circumstances (McKinnon v. Smock, 264 Ga. 375(2), 445 S.E.2d 526 (1994)), we must also be mindful of the fact that this Court is a court of review, and we "will not reverse a trial court's decision on discovery matters absent a clear abuse of discretion." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Ambassador College v. Goetzke, 244 Ga. 322, 323(1), 260 S.E.2d 27 (1979). Further, where a party seeking trial preparation material affirmatively "show[s] to the satisfaction of the trial court a substantial need for the evidence and that undue hardship will result should the seeking party be required to develop the evidence by other means, the trial court may order the production of the material...

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