Geohagan v. General Motors Corp.

CourtSupreme Court of Alabama
Writing for the CourtHARWOOD; As stated by de Graffenried; MADDOX; HEFLIN; MADDOX; JONES; HEFLIN; FAULKNER
Citation291 Ala. 167,279 So.2d 436
Decision Date24 May 1973
Parties, 12 UCC Rep.Serv. 993 Clinton GEOHAGAN, Administrator of the Estate of Barbara Geohagan Evans, Deceased v. GENERAL MOTORS CORP. and McDaniel Motor Co. SC 101

Page 436

279 So.2d 436
291 Ala. 167, 12 UCC Rep.Serv. 993
Clinton GEOHAGAN, Administrator of the Estate of Barbara Geohagan Evans, Deceased
v.
GENERAL MOTORS CORP. and McDaniel Motor Co.
SC 101
Supreme Court of Alabama.
May 24, 1973.
Rehearing Denied July 5, 1973.

[291

Page 436

Ala. 168]

Page 437

Tipler, Fuller & Barnes, Andalusia, for appellant.

[291 Ala. 169] Powell & Sikes, Andalusia, for appellee, General Motors Corp.

Rushton, Stakely, Johnston & Garrett, Montgomery, for appellee, McDaniel Motor Co.

HARWOOD, Justice.

This is a products liability case involving a claim for wrongful death instituted by the administrator of the estate of plaintiff's decedent against General Motors Corp. (General Motors), the manufacturer of the vehicle involved, and McDaniel Motor Co. (McDaniel), the retail vendor. The complaint, as finally amended, presented two counts; viz, Count One-D and Count Two-C, to which the defendants ultimately plead the general issue in short by consent. In substance Count One-D charges that the combined negligence of the defendants proximately resulted in the death of the plaintiff's intestate, Barbara Geohagan Evans. Count Two-C alleges that in connection with the sale of the vehicle the defendants impliedly warranted its suitability and fitness, the breach of which resulted in the fatal injury to plaintiff's intestate.

The trial court, at the conclusion of the testimony, granted each defendant's request for the affirmative charge as to Count Two-C and submitted the case to the jury on Count One-D only. This appeal is taken from the judgment rendered by the Circuit Court in accordance with the jury's verdict in favor of the defendants-appellees, and from the Circuit Court's action in granting defendants' request for the affirmative charge as to Count Two-C.

During her lifetime, Barbara Geohagan Evans was married to Rodney Evans. Mr. Evans was killed in military service subsequent to the time of his wife's fatal crash [291 Ala. 170] and prior to the date this suit was commenced by George Geohagan, Barbara's father, as administrator of her estate. On September 30, 1967, Rodney Evans purchased a new 1968 Chevrolet Camero from McDaniel. The car was undisputedly a General Motors product. In June of 1968, Rodney Evans and Barbara Geohagan were married and during their mutual lifetime the automobile involved was used by each of them as the family car. Barbara was driving the car alone on September 5, 1968, along Highway 52 between Opp and Samson, Alabama, at which time the car left the road at a high rate of speed, ran

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into a culvert and crashed into a utility pole. Barbara was killed in the crash.

The factual theory of the plaintiff's case was that the crash resulted from defective motor mounts, the failure of which caused the engine to shift within the engine compartment locking the accelerator at full throttle. Since this court's opinion rests solely on the question of law presented by the pleadings, no further recitation of the facts is deemed necessary. Suffice it here to observe that the evidence in support of the opposing contentions of plaintiff and of defendants relating to the cause of the crash was in conflict.

The matter urged by the appellant as error pertains to those assignments of error to the effect that the lower court erred in giving the affirmative charge for the defendants (appellees) as to the breach of implied warranty count, i.e., Count Two-C.

The basic issue here considered is whether an action for breach of implied warranty will legally sustain a claim for wrongful death. Realizing that this is a cause of first impression in Alabama, we take special note of the fact that we have been favored with excellent briefs by counsel for each of the parties.

An Alabama, as generally elsewhere, punitive damages are not recoverable for breach of contract. Wood v. Citronelle-Mobile Gathering System, 5th Cir., 409 F.2d 367.

As stated by de Graffenried, J., in Millsap v. Woolf, 1 Ala.App. 599, 56 So. 22:

'A warranty, in the sale of a chattel, is a collateral undertaking on the part of the seller as to the quality of or title to the subject of the sale. It may be express or implied. * * *

'As a warranty, express or implied, is a contract, the good faith of the seller in making it is not material. In actions for breach of warranty, the only questions are: Was there a contract of warranty? If so, has there been a breach? And if so, the amount of damages suffered by the purchaser thereby. Scott v. Holland, 132 Ala. 389, 31 So. 514.

'There is a clear distinction between an action for a breach of warranty and one for deceit in the sale of a chattel; in the first case the action is ex contractu and in the second, ex delicto. 30 Am. & Eng.Ency.Law, p. 129; Scott v. Holland, supra. * * *'

Regardless of the view in the earlier development of the action of breach of warranty that it was based on tort, certainly as the action developed it was regarded as contractual, and such was the view of our cases at the time of the passage of the Uniform Commercial Code by the Alabama Legislature in 1965, which code was to be effective at midnight on 31 December 1966.

Damages for breach of a contract (or breach of warranty) are awarded to put a party in the same position he would have occupied if the contract had not been violated. Coastal States Life Ins. Co. v. Gass, 278 Ala. 656, 180 So.2d 255. On the other hand, damages under our wrongful death statutes are punitive in nature, and are not compensatory. Crenshaw v. Alabama Freight, Inc., 287 Ala. 372, 252 So.2d 33. Such view is compatible only with the concept that any action permissible under our wrongful death acts must in nature be in tort and not in contract.

The Alabama, Uniform Commercial Code is contained in Act No. 549, 1965 Acts of [291 Ala. 171] Alabama. This Act appears as Secs. 1--101 through 9--505, of Title 7A, Michies Recompiled Code of Alabama 1958 (1966 Added Volume). For convenience we will refer to the provisions of the Act as they appear in the Recompiled Code.

Page 439

Secs. 1--102(1) and 1--102(2)(a) and (b) are as follows:

'(1) This title (Uniform Commercial Code) shall be liberally construed and applied to promote its underlying purposes and policies.

'(2) Underlying policies and purposes of this title are

'(a) to simplify, clarify and modernize the law Governing commercial transactions;

'(b) to permit the continued expansion of Commercial practices through custom, usage and agreement of the parties.' (Emphasis ours.)

Thus, it is crystal clear that the purpose of the legislature in passing our version of the Uniform Commercial Code was to regulate commercial transactions. By no stretch of the imagination can it be deemed that actions for wrongful death are commercial transactions.

Our decisions since the enactment of our wrongful death acts have made it clear that such acts are intended to protect human life, to prevent homicide, and to impose civil punishment on takers of human life. The damages awarded are punitive in nature. The personal representative in prosecuting a wrongful death action acts as an agent of legislative appointment for declaring the public policy evidenced by the wrongful death acts. An action under our wrongful death acts comes into being only on death from some wrongful act. See innumerable citations and annotations under Sec. 123, Title 7, Code of Alabama 1940.

Thus a wrongful death action differs entirely from an action for a breach of warranty, express or implied, in a contract, for as respects liability for breach of a warranty the good faith, or lack of faith, in promisor in making the contract of warranty is immaterial. Attalla Oil & Fertilizer Co. v. Goddard, 207 Ala. 287, 92 So. 794.

The above principles were well settled by the decisions of this court (and the courts of many of our sister states) at the time of the passage of our Uniform Commercial Code. Our wrongful death acts, and the decisions of this court thereunder have been the law of this state for decades.

Where a statute enumerates certain things on which it is to operate, the statute is to be construed as excluding from its effect all things not expressly mentioned. Champion v. McLean, 266 Ala. 103, 95 So.2d 82.

We do not see how the legislature could have more clearly expressed the operative scope of the Alabama Uniform Commercial Code than it did in the Section 1--102(2), Subsections (a) and (b) of Title 7A, above mentioned, i.e., that the underlying purpose and policy of the act was 'to simplify, clarify, and modernize the law governing Commercial transactions,' and 'to permit the continued expansion of Commercial practices through custom, usage and agreement of the parties.' (Emphasis ours.)

So far as can be determined from a reading of our Uniform Commercial Code, there is not one word, sentence, paragraph, clause, or section which in anywise even suggests that for the breach of an express or implied warranty in a contract any person is given a right to maintain an action for a wrongful death. On the other hand, the precision with which the legislature has defined the purpose and policy of the act, limiting the same to commercial transactions, clearly demonstrates that it was not the intent of the legislature in enacting the Uniform Commercial Code to create a wrongful death action in case of a breach of warranty of the contract involved.

This precise point was before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in Knight, Admr. v. Collins, et [291 Ala. 172] al., 327 F.Supp. 97 (1971). In an opinion by Pointer, J., it was set forth:

'To the extent that plaintiff seeks to bring a cause for breach of contract

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within the Homicide Act--Title 7, § 119, or its adult companion, Title 7, § 123--the Alabama Supreme Court has clearly foreclosed the way. Thaggard v. Vafes, 218 Ala. 609, 119 So. 647 (1928). Moreover, this same decision assumes the rule that an action Ex...

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66 practice notes
  • Terry v. Mcneil-Ppc, Inc. (In re Tylenol (Acetaminophen) Mktg.), MDL NO. 2436
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • 20 May 2015
    ...gives to the damages when recovered. They are assessed against the railroad 'to prevent homicides.'"); Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 279 So.2d 436, 439 (Ala. 1973)("Our decisions since the enactment of our wrongful death acts have made it clear that such acts are intended to protect hum......
  • Industrial Chemical & Fiberglass Corp. v. Chandler
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • 30 September 1988
    ...specially). On the authority of Benefield v. Aquaslide 'N' Dive Corp., 406 So.2d 873 (Ala.1981), and Geohagen v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 279 So.2d 436 (1973), I am constrained to concur in the judgments of affirmance in these two cases. I write separately to reiterate my longsta......
  • Alvarado v. Estate of Kidd, 1140706
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • 29 January 2016
    ...is to be construed as excluding from its effect all things not expressly 205 So.3d 1193mentioned." Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 171, 279 So.2d 436, 439 (1973).In the present case, there are two specific conditional elements of the wrongful-death statute that I deem worthy......
  • Jefferson v. City of Tarrant Alabama, 96957
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • 9 December 1997
    ...had interpreted the State's Wrongful Death Act as providing a punitive damages remedy only. See, e.g., Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 279 So.2d 436, 438-439 (1973). But §1983 plaintiffs may not recover punitive damages against a municipality. See Newport v. Fact Concerts, I......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
66 cases
  • Terry v. Mcneil-Ppc, Inc. (In re Tylenol (Acetaminophen) Mktg.), MDL NO. 2436
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • 20 May 2015
    ...gives to the damages when recovered. They are assessed against the railroad 'to prevent homicides.'"); Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 279 So.2d 436, 439 (Ala. 1973)("Our decisions since the enactment of our wrongful death acts have made it clear that such acts are intended to protect hum......
  • Industrial Chemical & Fiberglass Corp. v. Chandler
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • 30 September 1988
    ...specially). On the authority of Benefield v. Aquaslide 'N' Dive Corp., 406 So.2d 873 (Ala.1981), and Geohagen v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 279 So.2d 436 (1973), I am constrained to concur in the judgments of affirmance in these two cases. I write separately to reiterate my longsta......
  • Alvarado v. Estate of Kidd, 1140706
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alabama
    • 29 January 2016
    ...is to be construed as excluding from its effect all things not expressly 205 So.3d 1193mentioned." Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 171, 279 So.2d 436, 439 (1973).In the present case, there are two specific conditional elements of the wrongful-death statute that I deem worthy......
  • Jefferson v. City of Tarrant Alabama, 96957
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • 9 December 1997
    ...had interpreted the State's Wrongful Death Act as providing a punitive damages remedy only. See, e.g., Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 279 So.2d 436, 438-439 (1973). But §1983 plaintiffs may not recover punitive damages against a municipality. See Newport v. Fact Concerts, I......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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