General Motors Corp. v. Edwards

Decision Date15 November 1985
Citation482 So.2d 1176
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 10,888 GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION v. Robert J. EDWARDS, et al. Robert J. EDWARDS, etc., et al. v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION. 83-489, 83-510.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Brittin T. Coleman and Norman Jetmundsen, Jr. of Bradley, Arant, Rose & White, Birmingham and Byron Attridge and Chilton Davis Varner of King & Spalding, Atlanta, Ga., for appellant/cross-appellee, General Motors Corp.

R. Ben Hogan III of Hogan, Smith, Alspaugh, Samples & Pratt, Birmingham, and George White, Gadsden, for appellees/cross-appellants.

MADDOX, Justice.

These appeals arise from an automobile accident resulting in the tragic deaths of two boys and severe burns to their parents. Most of the facts in this case were disputed at trial; from those not in dispute, we have distilled the following: On the night of April 18, 1981, Robert and Marion Edwards and their two sons, Kelvin, age seven, and Reginald, age six, were en route from Marion to Montgomery in a 1980 Chevrolet Chevette automobile, which Mr. Edwards had borrowed from his brother. Mr. Edwards drove; Mrs. Edwards rode in the right front passenger seat; Reginald lay on the rear seat, and Kelvin lay in the hatchback or trunk area immediately behind the rear seat. As the Chevette travelled through Lowndes County along U.S. Highway 80 approaching Montgomery, it was struck from behind by an Oldsmobile driven by Dan Jerome Jarrett. Although Jarrett's speed was hotly disputed at trial, it is undisputed that he was exceeding the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit by at least twenty miles per hour, and that he had been drinking. 1

Upon impact, the Chevette burst into flames and spun to the right shoulder of the road. Mr. Edwards, after finding the front driver's-side door jammed, managed to kick open the front passenger-side door, crawl over his wife, through that door, and pull her from the flames after him. He then attempted to rescue his sons from the rear of the car, but was unable to do so because of the intense heat. Both children perished in the flames.

The Edwardses brought suit against General Motors (G.M.), the manufacturer of the Chevette, and Jarrett, asserting, inter alia, that Jarrett was negligent in the operation of his vehicle, and that G.M. sold the Chevette in a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition, within the meaning of the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (A.E.M.L.D.), as first set forth in Casrell v. Altec Industries, Inc., 335 So.2d 128 (Ala.1976), and Atkins v. American Motors Corp., 335 So.2d 134 (Ala.1976). In particular, they alleged that the design of the gas tank, which was placed in the "crush zone" (between the rear bumper and axle of the Chevette), the fuel filler neck, which was rigidly connected to the left rear quarter panel, and the doors, were defective.

After a lengthy trial the jury returned a verdict finding both Jarrett and G.M. liable for the Edwardses' personal injuries, but finding only G.M. liable for the wrongful deaths of Kelvin and Reginald. The trial court, after hearing argument from both sides, instructed the jury that its verdicts were inconsistent and ordered it to resume deliberation. Shortly thereafter, the jury submitted the following written question to the trial judge: "Do you mean being consistent on damages rendered or defendants charged?" After that, the following colloquy occurred between the judge and the jury:

"Ladies and gentlemen, what I'm about to say to you will be taken along with you and by you with all of the Court's charge heretofore given to you as the law of this case, and also the charge that the Court gave you a few moments ago, which among [other] things stated to you that anything that the Court says is not to influence your decision or not to indicate to you or suggest to you anything by the Court as to what you would do. That is totally within the discretion of the jury.

"Now, taking all of that into consideration and to be more specific in an attempt to answer your question, as a part of the Court's instructions to you a few moments ago the Court said this, that the Court charges the jury that the jury cannot find against both Defendants in Mr. Edwards' case and Mrs. Edwards' case for their individual claim for injuries, and further finding against the Defendant General Motors only in the cases involving the death of the children.

"Now, I am also hesitant to do this, because sometimes I get some things that I can't answer. As I have told you, the function of the Court is only to pass upon the law and upon the admissibility of the evidence. You are the finders of the facts. I'm limited as to what I can say and do because that's up to you. But does that seem to answer your question, Mr. Foreperson?

"MR. NORTON: Yes, sir."

Thereafter, the jury returned to its deliberations and subsequently returned a second verdict completely exonerating Jarrett but holding G.M. liable for $2,000,000 in each of the wrongful death claims, $50,000 for Mrs. Edwards's injuries and $25,000 for Mr. Edwards's injuries.

Pursuant to G.M.'s motion, the trial court remitted each wrongful death award by $600,000 to $1,400,000, making the total verdict against G.M. $2,875,000. G.M. appealed and the Edwardses cross-appealed from the remittitur.

On appeal, G.M. contends, inter alia: (1) that the verdict against it was against the great weight of the evidence because the Edwardses failed to prove that the Chevette was defective or that the defect proximately caused the injuries complained of; (2) that the instructions given the jury, particularly in regard to proximate cause and "crashworthiness," were "misleading, incomplete and erroneous"; and (3) that the jury's verdict exonerating Jarrett while holding G.M. solely liable is inconsistent.


The "crashworthiness doctrine," which is also referred to as the "second collision doctrine" or the "enhanced injury doctrine," is a recent development in the area of products liability law, so recent, in fact, that prior to 1968 a case of this nature would likely have been subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. While all jurisdictions which have adopted one of the various forms of liability applicable to manufacturers, such as our Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (A.E.M.L.D.), have always recognized that a cause of action exists where a defect in an automobile causes an accident which injures the ultimate consumer or one within the foreseeable scope of the automobile's use, until the landmark decision of Larsen v. General Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir.1968), many jurisdictions, following the reasoning expressed in Evans v. General Motors Corp., 359 F.2d 822 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 836, 87 S.Ct. 83, 17 L.Ed.2d 70 (1966), overruled, Huff v. White Motor Corp., 609 F.2d 286 (7th Cir.1979), held that, where there was no allegation that the defect in the automobile caused the accident to happen, no cause of action arose against the vehicle's manufacturer. Ropiequet, Current Issues Under the "Second Collision" Doctrine, For the Defense, Oct. 1983, at 12-17.

The decisions in Evans and its progeny were based upon the reasoning that, although an automobile manufacturer has a duty to design vehicles which are reasonably safe for their intended use, the intended use of an automobile does not include participation in collisions, regardless of the fact that such collisions are foreseeable. Id.; Evans, supra, at 825. Therefore, Evans held, no manufacturer has a duty to design an accident-proof vehicle nor a vehicle that is safer from the obvious danger of collision than any other vehicle.

Although a few jurisdictions have continued to follow Evans and others have used the reasoning expressed therein to limit the scope of the "crashworthiness doctrine," Foland, Enhanced Injury: Problems of Proof in "Second Collision" and "Crashworthy" Cases, 16 Washburn L.J. 601 (1977), the majority of jurisdictions have adopted the Larsen view, i.e., that an automobile manufacturer may be held liable where its design enhances the injuries sustained in a collision. Larsen, supra, at 503; Ropiequet, supra, at 14; Note, Apportionment of Damages in the "Second Collision" Case, 63 Va.L.Rev. 475 (1977).

In Larsen, the plaintiff was severely injured when the 1963 Chevrolet Corvair he was driving was involved in a head-on collision that caused the car's steering mechanism to be thrust into his head. G.M., the manufacturer, successfully moved for summary judgment in federal district court, and the plaintiff appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed, holding that, while a manufacturer is under no duty to design an accident-proof vehicle, the manufacturer of a vehicle does have a duty to design its product so as to avoid subjecting its user to an unreasonable risk of injury in the event of a collision. Larsen, supra, at 502. The court's reasoning was that collisions are a statistically foreseeable and inevitable risk within the intended use of an automobile, which is to travel on the streets, highways, and other thoroughfares, and that, while the user must accept the normal risk of driving, he should not be subjected to an unreasonable risk of injury due to a defective design. Larsen, supra, at 502-05.

Neither Evans nor Larsen has ever been cited in Alabama and no Alabama court has dealt, per se, with the issue of "crashworthiness." Although Evans and Larsen are not binding upon this Court, they may, of course, be considered as persuasive authority. Having studied both opinions and the cases following them, we find that the rule stated in Larsen is more in keeping with the purpose of the A.E.M.L.D., which is to protect consumers against injuries caused by defective products. In fact, as the Edwardses point out, as far back as Atkins, supra, this Court recognized, by implication, that a cause of action exists...

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