Huddell v. Levin

Decision Date28 May 1975
Docket NumberCiv. No. 769-70.
PartiesJosephine B. HUDDELL, Administratrix ad prosequendum and General Administratrix of the Estate of Benjamin R. Huddell, Deceased and Josephine B. Huddell, Individually, Plaintiff, v. George Gerson LEVIN et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey




James E. Beasley, Beasley, Hewson, Casey, Kraft & Colleran, Philadelphia, Pa., and John R. Bennie, Bennie & Sarubbi, Camden, N. J., for plaintiff.

Arthur Montano, Kisselman, Deighan, Montano & Summers, Camden, N. J., for defendant, Levin.

Francis E. Marshall, Marshall, Dennehey & Warner, Philadelphia, Pa., and G. Paul Crawshaw, Martin & Crawshaw, Haddonfield, N. J., for defendant, S. Klein.

John C. Heavey, Jr., Carpenter, Bennett & Morrissey, Newark, N. J., for defendant, General Motors.



COHEN, Senior District Judge:

Numerous post-trial motions are here presented, in this negligence and product liability action, following the return of a jury verdict of $2,024,710 in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendant, General Motors. A resume of the testimony adduced throughout the four-week trial is appropriate.

On the early morning of March 24, 1970, a clear, dry day, Dr. Benjamin R. Huddell, a psychiatrist, was en route from his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to the Delaware State Hospital, where he was engaged in psychiatric research. Dr. Huddell was operating a 1970 Chevrolet Nova, manufactured by General Motors and purchased from its dealer approximately four months prior to the accident. Installed as part of its original equipment were head restraints for driver and front-seat passenger, each at a retail cost of $30.00, whose sole purpose was to prevent rearward rotation of the head and neck in the event of a rear-end collision. Evidence was presented that these head restraints were designed in such a manner as to expose the rear of the head to a relatively sharp, unyielding metal edge, covered by two inches of soft, foam-like material.

Dr. Huddell's car ran out of gas on the Delaware Memorial Bridge, connecting the States of New Jersey and Delaware. His car was brought to a full stop in the left-most, southbound lane of traffic; he was seat-belted in the driver's seat; and the blinker lights on his vehicle were in operation. At approximately 8:30 A.M., the defendant, George Gerson Levin, in the course of his employment for the defendant, S. Klein Department Stores, Inc., and en route to S. Klein's branch store in Greenbelt, Maryland, drove his Chrysler sedan at a considerable rate of speed directly into the rear of Dr. Huddell's Nova. Levin's speed was estimated at fifty miles per hour (Levin) and sixty miles per hour (plaintiff's expert). Because of the energy-absorbing characteristics of the vehicles and friction with the roadway, the impact resulted in an acceleration of the Huddell automobile to a maximum speed of 31.7 miles per hour. The rear of Dr. Huddell's head struck the head restraint at a speed of ten miles per hour.

Levin sustained only superficial injuries for which he was examined, treated and discharged from the hospital within an hour after the accident. With the exception of his head, Dr. Huddell also sustained superficial injuries; the autopsy performed by the Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Delaware, within two and a half hours after Huddell's death, revealed that his neck, skeletal system and internal organs sustained no injury whatsoever. The blow of his head against the head restraint, however, resulted in "extensive fracture" to the occipital region of the skull. Because of a medical phenomenon known as "contrecoup," by which the brain of a moving head striking a stationary object sustains injury opposite the point of impact, the frontal portions of Dr. Huddell's brain were extensively damaged, as a result of which he died one day after the accident.

Dr. Huddell had just completed a residency at the Jefferson Medical College in psychiatry and had opened a private office for the practice of his specialty. At the time of his death he was thirty-nine years of age; his wife Josephine was thirty-four; the range of age of his five children was from three to thirteen years.

Suit was instituted in this court, based upon diversity of citizenship, by Mrs. Huddell in her representative capacity, against George Gerson Levin, driver of the rear-ending vehicle, alleging negligence, against Levin's employer, S. Klein Department Stores, on a respondeat superior theory, and against General Motors Corporation, charging that the head restraint installed in Dr. Huddell's vehicle was defectively designed, unreasonably dangerous and failed to give him proper protection against a rear-end collision such as heretofore described.

Upon conclusion of the trial, after considerable discussion with counsel in chambers, accord was reached that the following special interrogatories be submitted to the jury:

1. Was the defendant, George Gerson Levin, negligent in the operation of his automobile?
2. If you have answered "Yes," was the negligence of George Gerson Levin a substantial contributing factor or proximate cause of the death of Dr. Huddell?
3. Was George Gerson Levin in the scope of his employment with the defendant S. Klein Department Stores, Inc. at the time of the accident?
4. Was Dr. Huddell contributorily negligent in the operation of his automobile?
5. If your answer to Interrogatory No. 4 is "Yes," was Dr. Huddell's contributory negligence a substantial contributing factor or proximate cause of the accident?
6. Did Dr. Huddell's head strike the head restraint?
7. Was the head restraint in the 1970 Chevrolet Nova of Dr. Huddell defective and unreasonably dangerous?
8. If your answer to Interrogatory No. 7 is "Yes," was the head restraint a substantial contributing factor or proximate cause of the death of Dr. Huddell?
9. Did General Motors breach its warranty for fitness for the particular purpose for which the headrest was designed, at the time of the accident of March 24, 1970?
10. If your answer to Interrogatory No. 9 is "Yes," was such breach of warranty a substantial contributing factor or proximate cause of Dr. Huddell's death?
11. If you find that the plaintiff, Mrs. Huddell, is entitled to recover against any or all defendants, what is the amount of your verdict?

The jury returned its answers, finding in substance, that Levin was negligent and was acting within the scope of his employment for S. Klein, but that his negligence was not a substantial contributing factor or proximate cause of Dr. Huddell's death; that Dr. Huddell was not contributorily negligent; that Dr. Huddell's head did strike the head restraint; that the head restraint was defective and unreasonably dangerous and was a substantial contributing factor of Dr. Huddell's death; that General Motors breached its warranty of fitness which breach was a substantial contributing factor of Dr. Huddell's death; and that the damages sustained were $2,024,700.00.

In accordance with the jury's special findings of fact, judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff against General Motors in the amount of the jury's verdict, together with prejudgment interest under New Jersey law. Judgments of no cause for action were entered in favor of Levin and S. Klein.

The post-trial motions may, in the main, be stated as follows:

General Motors asks for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, pursuant to Rule 50(b), Fed.R.Civ.P., or, in the alternative, for a new trial on the issues of its liability, pursuant to Rule 59(b), Fed.R.Civ.P.; plaintiff and General Motors seek judgment n. o. v. against Levin and S. Klein, urging that Levin's negligence was, as a matter of law, a proximate cause of plaintiff's damage; General Motors moves for a new trial alleging trial error in the admission of testimony concerning the potential growth of Dr. Huddell's earnings, and in foreclosing the jury's consideration of income tax consequences, thereby resulting in an excessive verdict, in which motion Levin and S. Klein join should the court find them liable as a matter of law; General Motors maintains that no prejudgment interest on plaintiff's claim may be added to the jury's verdict; and General Motors raises objections to the plaintiff's bill of costs. Additionally, General Motors urges that if it is responsible at all, it is so only for enhanced injuries of which an unreasonable design defect was a direct proximate cause.

Because the accident, the decedent's survivors and the trial were all in New Jersey, all parties agree that New Jersey law must govern these and all other issues raised post-trial.

Inasmuch as Levin and S. Klein do not here challenge the jury's findings concerning negligence and respondeat superior, the relevant factual disputes revolve around the alleged defect of Dr. Huddell's vehicle and the cause of his death. Of course, all testimony and inferences therefrom on these issues must be viewed in a light most favorable to the respective jury-verdict winners.

The foregoing motions will be considered seriatim:


General Motors does not challenge the basis for the findings of fact set forth above. Rather, in support of the captioned motion, it urges that "second collision" liability is not the law of New Jersey; that it compliance with applicable federal standards forecloses the assessment of common law liability; and that, in any event, it had no legal duty to foresee that its head restraint would be used in the manner that it was.

Furthermore, General Motors now suggests that plaintiff's proofs were insufficient to permit a jury finding that Dr. Huddell's death was a result of the defectively designed headrest, as opposed to other possible causes set in motion by the rear-end impact. To the...

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