Haumersen v. Ford Motor Co.

Decision Date31 August 1977
Docket NumberNo. 2-58043,2-58043
Citation257 N.W.2d 7
PartiesDavid J. HAUMERSEN, Administrator of the Estate of Charles D. Haumersen, Deceased, and David J. Haumersen, natural father of Charles D. Haumersen, Deceased, Appellees, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Appellant.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Lane & Waterman, Davenport, for appellant.

Betty, Neuman, McMahon, Hellstrom & Bittner by Richard M. McMahon and Larry L. Shepler, Davenport, and Doumar, Pincus, Knight & Harlan, Norfolk, Va., for appellees.

Submitted en banc.

MOORE, Chief Justice.

This is an appeal from judgments on jury verdicts in an action predicated on strict liability. It involves an accident in which a car went out of control in a school yard, striking and killing a seven-year-old boy. Ford Motor Company manufactured the car. David J. Haumersen is the administrator of the child's estate and father of the child. He sues in both capacities.

The accident occurred on October 24, 1972, in the parking lot of Harrison School in Davenport, Iowa. Barbara Jo Woodford, the operator and one of the owners of the 1968 Thunderbird car involved in the accident, was dropping off two of her children at the school. Immediately preceding the fatal accident, Mrs. Woodford was involved in a minor incident in which her foot apparently slipped off the brake causing her to bump the car in front of her. After conversing with the other driver, she returned to her car and prepared to leave. Although the evidence was conflicting, the jury could find that Mrs. Woodford placed her car in gear and started to accelerate when the car suddenly lurched out of control, jumped the curb, hit several children including the decedent, and finally came to rest against the school building. Skid marks on the pavement and grass at the scene indicated Mrs. Woodford attempted to brake but was unable to overcome the rapid acceleration.

Following the accident, investigators discovered two broken motor mounts on the car. Investigation focused on the possibility that the broken mounts allowed the engine to rotate in such manner as to cause impingement on the throttle mechanism and rapid acceleration accelerator "hang up." In tests soon after the accident, however, the throttle impingement was not duplicated.

Plaintiffs filed suit against several defendants on several theories of liability. Ultimately the matter went to trial against Ford alone with strict liability as the sole basis for recovery.

During trial, plaintiffs presented evidence that Mrs. Woodford struck a chuck-hole about three days prior to the accident. She characterized the impact as severe. Plaintiffs theorized that the motor mounts broke on impact with the chuck-hole. Plaintiffs further claimed that the bump with the vehicle immediately prior to the school-yard accident threw the motor forward and that when Mrs. Woodford attempted to depart after the bump the engine rotated in such a way as to impinge on the throttle and cause the rapid acceleration. Plaintiffs claimed Ford defectively manufactured the vehicle and the accident occurred as a result.

Ford denied any defect in the car. It relied heavily on the inability of investigators to duplicate such an occurrence with the vehicle. Additionally, it argued that the incident with the chuck-hole was not significant and that the breakage of the motor mounts occurred on impact with the school building.

The jury returned a verdict of $100,000 for the estate of the child and $60,000 for the father. Ford appealed on several grounds: (1) the trial court's failure to exclude, for insufficient foundation, the opinion of plaintiffs' expert witness as to the cause of the accident, (2) the trial court's exclusion of Ford's proffered evidence of experiments and testing, (3) an alleged pattern of one-sided rulings by the trial court constituting abuse of discretion, (4) existence of a superseding cause in the driver's failure to inspect the vehicle following the impact with the chuck-hole, (5) inapplicability of the doctrine of strict liability to third-party bystanders, and (6) excessive damages.

I. Plaintiffs' expert witness John Talbott described conditions he observed in an inspection of the vehicle in May 1974, some 12,000 miles after the accident. He found a tear in the insulation above the air cleaner, scoring on the radiator showing it had been in contact with the fan, marks on the down-shift rod indicating it had impinged on the heater housing, and a dent apparently made by a bracket about two inches forward of the bracket's normal resting position. Talbott also testified that the appearance of the car at the time of his inspection, including road film and wear on the new motor mounts which were installed, indicated as "most highly probable" that the conditions he described all occurred at the time of the accident in question. Ford did not object to any of this testimony.

Subsequently, plaintiffs attempted to introduce photographs depicting the conditions Talbott had described. At this point, Ford objected claiming a lack of foundation showing that the condition of the car as observed by Talbott and as depicted in the photos was the same as immediately after the accident. The trial court overruled this objection and admitted the photos, indicating that they merely depicted what Talbott had already described without objection.

Thereafter, following a long hypothetical question and over Ford's objection, the trial court allowed Talbott to give his opinion concerning the cause of the school-yard accident. In essence, Talbott opined that the impact with the chuck-hole broke the motor mounts; that the bump with the car immediately preceding the accident threw the engine forward two inches; and that thereafter when the driver accelerated, the engine rotated resulting in an impingement on the throttle mechanism and causing the throttle to remain open and ultimately to bring about the accident.

Ford now contends that for want of foundation, the trial court erred in admitting Talbott's opinion. Specifically, Ford contends that no evidence was adduced to show that the condition of the car at the time of Talbott's observations was the same as at the time of the accident. See 2 Barzelay & Lacy, Scientific Automobile Accident Reconstruction, 1404.102-.103 (1976). Additionally, Ford maintains that the lack of evidence as to handling and maintenance of the vehicle during the 18-month and 12,000-mile period between the accident and Talbott's inspection made the evidence inadmissible.

We discussed the legal principles governing opinion evidence in recent cases. Doe v. Ray, 251 N.W.2d 496 (Iowa); Becker v. D & E Distributing Co., 247 N.W.2d 727 (Iowa); Miller v. International Harvester Co., 246 N.W.2d 298 (Iowa). Iowa is committed to a liberal rule which allows opinion testimony if it is of a nature which will aid the jury and is based on special training, experience, or knowledge with respect to the issue in question. The receipt of such evidence rests largely in the discretion of the trial court and its ruling will not be disturbed absent manifest abuse of that discretion. The court's discretion is not unlimited. The facts upon which the expert bases his opinion must be sufficient to enable the witness to express an opinion which is more than mere conjecture. Irrespective of the manner in which the opinion question is phrased, the opinion remains such and the trier of fact is at liberty to reject it. Only in clear cases of abuse is admission of such evidence found prejudicial. Doe v. Ray, supra; Miller v. International Harvester Co., supra; Tiemeyer v. McIntosh176 N.W.2d 819, 823 (Iowa).

Talbott testified without objection concerning his observations of the vehicle. Additionally, as to a foundation for an assumption that the condition of the vehicle was the same as immediately after the accident, the following testimony was received, without objection:

Q. (Plaintiff's attorney) Now, what, in response to Mr. Waterman's (defendant's attorney) query, would you have what evidence do you have or what is your opinion that this condition as you saw it on the car incidentally with ninety-four thousand on it, Mr. Waterman, existed at the time of the accident? A. First it had been there for a while because of the road film. It wasn't of recent origin because the road film and dirt that accumulated on it. That is completely consistent with a a forward movement that would have the engine would have had to have moved forward in order for the fan to have struck the rear of the radiator. It was consistent with the rotation of the engine because you have the abrasions on the inner surface of the kick down and down shift rod. All of these fit so closely in my judgment make it most highly probable that they occurred in the same event.

The record contains other factors: Mrs. Woodford's testimony concerning the severity of the impact with the chuck-hole; testimony that conditions Talbott observed could not have occurred unless the motor mounts were broken; testimony that new motor mounts were placed on the car immediately following the accident; and testimony that when Talbott observed the vehicle, the motor mounts were intact and appeared to have "very close to 12,000 miles" on them.

Although the lapse of time between the accident and the observations of Talbott reduced the weight of Talbott's opinion, and although admission of his opinion went to the outer limits of the trial court's discretion, we are unwilling to hold that the trial court abused its discretion. The evidence did provide some basis for a rational belief that the conditions Talbott related were present at the time of the accident; thus the facts on which he based his opinion were sufficient to enable him to express an opinion which was more than mere conjecture. Ganrud v. Smith, 206 N.W.2d 311 (Iowa). On this subject generally see 3 Barzelay, Scientific Automobile Accident Reconstruction, 27-4-28-17 (1976); 2A id., 1404.343-.383.

II. At trial Ford...

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