General Motors Corp. v. Hopkins

Citation548 S.W.2d 344
Decision Date23 February 1977
Docket NumberNo. B-5986,B-5986
PartiesGENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION et al., Petitioners, v. R. M. HOPKINS, Jr., Respondent.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Page 344

548 S.W.2d 344
R. M. HOPKINS, Jr., Respondent.
No. B-5986.
Supreme Court of Texas.
Feb. 23, 1977.
Rehearing Denied April 13, 1977.

Page 346

Vinson, Elkins, Searls, Connally & Smith, Harry M. Reasoner, Francis E. McGovern, II and Eleanor S. Glass, Houston, Frazer F. Hilder and Thomas W. Watkins, Detroit, Mich., W. Page Keeton, Austin, Barrow, Bland & Rehmet, Vincent W. Rehmet, Houston, for petitioners.

Kronzer, Abraham & Watkins, W. W. Watkins and W. James Kronzer, Houston, for respondent.

REAVLEY, Justice.

Robert M. Hopkins, Jr., was badly hurt when his 1970 Chevrolet pick-up truck failed to keep to the road on a sharp turn and capsized. He contends in this products liability suit that the accident occurred because the driver lost control of the speed of the truck when the secondary butterfly valves of a defective carburetor were locked in an open position. The jury found that the carburetor was defectively designed and that this defect was a producing cause of the accident. Among its defenses General Motors Corporation contended that any malfunction of the carburetor was due to changes in the mechanism effected by Hopkins in the course of its removal and reinstallation upon the motor of the truck. The jury found that there had been "misuse" of the carburetor by Hopkins and that this was a producing cause of the accident. The trial court disregarded the findings relative to misuse and rendered judgment for Hopkins. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed, deciding that there was evidence to support all of the jury's findings, but holding that misuse which is only a concurring cause of plaintiff's damages is no defense for the manufacturer of a defective product. 535 S.W.2d 880, (Tex.Civ.App.). We affirm the judgment for Hopkins.


The quadrajet carburetor installed on the new Chevrolet truck when Hopkins bought

Page 347

it in 1970 has two primary valves and barrels through which air and gasoline are fed into the intake manifold and the cylinders of the engine according to direct control from the accelerator pedal. Maximum acceleration and fuel flow is obtained by opening the two secondary valves and barrels, which is accomplished when the driver presses the pedal some two-thirds of the distance down toward the floorboard. If the secondaries are opened while the engine is being started cold, however, the mixture and flow of fuel and air may not be suitable. A lock-out system is designed to prevent this. By that design until the engine is warm a lock-out lever holds a lock-out pin down and thereby prevents the secondary throttle shaft from turning. The evidence offered by Hopkins, which evidence supports the jury findings of design defect and of that defect as a cause of the accident, tended to prove that the lock-out pin hung on top of the lock-out lever jamming the secondary valves one-third open and feeding a large quantity of fuel into the engine beyond any means of control by the driver (unless he turned off the ignition). GM has argued that the lock-out pin could not possibly hang on top of the lock-out lever when the engine was warm and in operation. Assuming the truth of the evidence in support of the jury findings, as we must do, there is an abundance of proof here that this could and did happen. The lock-out lever can be moved by the bouncing of the vehicle on a rough road. If the accelerator is pumped down to rotate the lock-out pin upward and if the pin comes down when the lever is rotated underneath, the pin can hang especially if there is a gritty substance on the adjoining surfaces. The circumstances of the road, the operation of the truck, and the action of its engine at the time of the accident all fit these conditions according to the testimony of Hopkins and the driver of the truck. The pin was found in a hung position over the lever upon examination of the carburetor following the accident. Furthermore, a similar malfunction had occurred, according to two witnesses, a few weeks before the accident. Although Hopkins and a mechanic saw the misposition of the lock-out pin and lever, they did not then realize its significance. This prior experience with the runaway carburetor occurred before the time when Hopkins operated his truck with a different carburetor; there is no evidence of his alteration or "misuse" of the GM carburetor prior to that occasion.

The evidence also tends to prove that GM knew of this problem as early as February of 1968. A picture taken in 1968 of this model carburetor with the lock-out pin positioned on top of the lock-out lever was obtained from GM files and introduced into evidence. Correspondence among GM engineers was also introduced which reflects the effort to make a change in the design to prevent this misposition and which states that these engineers considered the change to be an urgent safety matter. Plaintiff's experts concluded that the hung lock-out pin caused the accident. We agree with the Court of Civil Appeals that the evidence supports the jury findings of design defect 1 and of this defect being a producing cause of the accident.

Page 348


Hopkins bought the Chevrolet truck new on August 24, 1970. The first malfunction of the carburetor mentioned above occurred in the Spring of 1971. A few weeks after that occurrence Hopkins removed the GM carburetor and put a Holley carburetor on his truck. He kept the Holley on the truck for about a week and then removed it and reinstalled the original GM quadrajet carburetor. The accident occurred in June of 1971. GM contends that if the carburetor did malfunction, it was because of Hopkins' alterations in the process of his removal and reinstallation of the GM carburetor. Eleven changes are named in the Court of Civil Appeals opinion, 535 S.W.2d 880, and include the use of improper bolts and hoses and clamps, etc. The jury found that the manner in which Hopkins reinstalled the carburetor constituted a misuse 2 of the vehicle and that such misuse was a producing cause of the accident. These findings were disregarded by the trial court because, as stated in its judgment, they were "without any support in the evidence" and were "immaterial to the establishment of any defense."

The Court of Civil Appeals found evidence to support the causal connection of only one change made by Hopkins in and around the carburetor. That Court pointed to the "testimony that when the choke rod was disconnected the choke could be 'blown open' under such circumstances that the lock-out pin could be positioned on top of the lock-out lever with the secondaries open" and concluded that the jury was entitled to find "that the disconnected choke rod was a contributing factor in the malfunction of the carburetor system." 535 S.W.2d 887.

GM attempted to explain the accident in several ways. First, it said that the truck was simply driven too fast to negotiate the sharp turn. Neighbors in the area of the mishap testified to the noise made by the truck on the road before it reached the curve. Then GM offered some evidence which suggested that the Holley carburetor was still installed on the truck at the time of the accident. Finally and at great length, GM experts testified about the changes made by Hopkins in the reinstallation of the carburetor and how these changes might have been a factor in causing the accident. Almost all of this testimony tells of the possibilities of what could have happened. There is not the slightest suggestion that these changes could have played any role in the loss of control of the vehicle and its overturning apart from the uncontrolled racing of the engine described by Hopkins and the driver. The only explanation to be found in the evidence of this racing of the engine is the malfunction of the carburetor. No explanation is given which would permit common experience or knowledge apart from expert testimony to determine the reason for the malfunction of the carburetor. The jury and court must therefore depend upon the explanations and opinions of the experts. Under these circumstances testimony of a possibility without any opinion of the reasonable probability would not support a finding of causal connection. Webb v. Western Casualty & Surety Co., 517 S.W.2d 529 (Tex.1974).

All of the testimony about the possibilities (the blowing open of the choke because the rod was not connected or the binding of the valves...

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