Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., No. 92 Civ. 2900(NRB).

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
Writing for the CourtBuchwald
Citation69 F.Supp.2d 582
PartiesKathleen Madaline JARVIS, Plaintiff, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.
Decision Date27 October 1999
Docket NumberNo. 92 Civ. 2900(NRB).
69 F.Supp.2d 582
Kathleen Madaline JARVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.
No. 92 Civ. 2900(NRB).
United States District Court, S.D. New York.
October 27, 1999.

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COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

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Brian P. Crosby, Gibson, McAskill & Crosby, Buffalo, NY, for defendant.

George N. Tompkins, Jr., Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, LLP, New York City, Thomas J. Murray, Murray & Murray Co., Sandusky, OH, for plaintiff.

OPINION AND ORDER

BUCHWALD, District Judge.


Plaintiff Kathleen Madaline Jarvis ("plaintiff" or "Jarvis") filed this diversity action alleging that she was injured on July 14, 1991 when the 1991 Ford Aerostar she was operating suddenly accelerated and traveled into a ditch.1 Plaintiff alleged that a design defect in the automobile's cruise control system caused the sudden acceleration. After a two-week trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that plaintiff's Aerostar was not defectively designed but that Ford Motor Company ("defendant" or "Ford") nevertheless had been negligent in the design of the vehicle. Additionally, the jury found Jarvis' own negligence to have been 35% responsible for her accident. The jury awarded damages for past and future medical insurance premiums, loss of earnings, and pain and suffering.

Presently pending is defendant's motion of August 11, 1999 ("Deft. 50(b) Memo"), pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), for an order granting judgment to defendant as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, granting a new trial.2 In support of its motion, defendant argues, first, that the jury's verdict was inconsistent because its finding that Ford was not strictly liable negates its finding of negligence and, second, that

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the negligence finding is against the weight of the evidence. Defendant also moved on August 11, 1999 ("Deft. 4545 Memo") for an order reducing the verdict by the amount of collateral source payments plaintiff has received and will receive in the future pursuant to CPLR § 4545. Finally, defendant has asked the Court to rule on its motion to dismiss plaintiff's punitive damages claim originally filed on June 6, 1997 ("Deft. Punitives Memo").3 Plaintiff has offered a response to each of these motions. (Respectively, "Pl. 50(b) Mem."; "Pl. 4545 Mem."; and "Pl. Punitives Reply"). We will discuss each of these motions in turn, with particular attention first to the issue of the jury verdict inconsistency and then to the sufficiency of the plaintiff's evidence.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed this products liability action pleading design defect causes of action under both strict liability and negligence theories. Plaintiff testified during the trial that she started her six-day-old Aerostar on July 14, 1991 in the driveway of her home in Woodstock, New York, with her foot on the brake and the car in "park."4 Tr. 73. According to the testimony, the vehicle proceeded to suddenly accelerate down the driveway. Tr. 74-75. Plaintiff testified that she attempted to stop the vehicle by stepping on the brake with both feet, but that the vehicle did not stop. Tr. 83-84. The vehicle traveled approximately 330 feet down the driveway, came to a stop in a drainage ditch, and overturned. Tr. 695.

The essence of plaintiff's claim is that the stand-alone cruise control in the 1991 Ford Aerostar5 was defectively designed because, upon ignition, battery voltage will be supplied to the cruise control system (in particular, the servo component) and thus that the simultaneous occurrence of two transient electrical events could result in the car's throttle going to a wide open condition, causing a sudden, unintended acceleration of the vehicle without driver input. It was further plaintiff's position that the mechanical features of the car were not adequate to overcome an electrically-caused wide open throttle condition, i.e., that the design lacked a failsafe mechanism.6

Ford's position was, first, that the vehicle was properly designed to overcome

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even the statistically remote possibility that two simultaneous electrical events could occur, resulting in a wide open throttle. Second, Ford's position was that there was no evidence that the two simultaneous electrical faults postulated by the plaintiff's electrical engineering expert ever occurred in the plaintiff's vehicle, or that the vehicle did not have adequate mechanical back-ups, and indeed that the physical evidence was to the contrary. Moreover, Ford presented another explanation for the events which plaintiff described and which considered the testimony of other witnesses to the events as well as the physical evidence.

DISCUSSION

I. Verdict Inconsistencies

Defendants initially make this application to set aside the verdict as inherently inconsistent based on the jury's answer to two special verdict questions. First, the jury answered "no" to the question, "Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that the cruise control system of the 1991 Ford Aerostar was designed in a defective manner?" Court Ex. 12. Second, the jury answered "yes" to the question, "Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant Ford Motor Company was negligent in the design of the cruise control system in the 1991 Ford Aerostar?" Id. Defendant reasons that the jury's finding that the cruise control was not defective "precludes a finding, legally and logically, that Ford was negligent in designing the cruise control system." Deft. 50(b) Memo at 3. Plaintiff argues that the Court must make every attempt to reconcile the jury's answers on the verdict form to find a consistent way to interpret the verdict, even if such a reading is "strained." Pl. 50(b) Mem. at 7 (citing McGuire v. Russell Miller, Inc., 1 F.3d 1306, 1311 (2d Cir.1993)). We find that the two jury determinations cannot be reconciled.

For nearly twenty years, lower courts in New York have found that the two theories of negligence and strict liability for design defect are "almost functionally equivalent." DeRosa v. Remington Arms Co., 509 F.Supp. 762, 766-67 (E.D.N.Y. 1981) (Weinstein, J.) (citing Lancaster Silo & Block v. Northern Propane Gas, 75 A.D.2d 55, 427 N.Y.S.2d 1009, 1013 (4th Dep't 1980)). In Denny v. Ford Motor Co., 87 N.Y.2d 248, 257-58, 639 N.Y.S.2d 250, 255-56, 662 N.E.2d 730, 735-36 (1995), New York's Court of Appeals formally endorsed this proposition for all design defect claims, citing several cases and law review articles to establish that negligence and strict liability design defect claims are "functionally synonymous" since the strict liability analysis is "negligence-inspired." See also Gonzalez v. Morflo Industries, Inc., 931 F.Supp. 159, 164 n. 3 (E.D.N.Y. 1996) (citing Denny for proposition that "negligence and strict liability design defect claims are virtually indistinguishable"); Enright v. Eli Lilly & Co., 77 N.Y.2d 377, 387, 568 N.Y.S.2d 550, 555-56, 570 N.E.2d 198, 203-04 (1991) (failure to warn claim, "though it may be couched in terms of strict liability, is indistinguishable from a negligence claim").7

As a consequence of this functional equivalence, defendant's position that a finding of no defect and a finding of negligence are inconsistent as a matter of law in a product liability case is well supported.8 The Restatement (Third) of

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Torts instructs that "two or more factually identical defective-design claims ... should not be submitted to the trier of fact in the same case under different doctrinal labels." Restatement (Third) Torts § 2, cmt. n (warning that the submission of the same claim on "multiple theories of recovery ... would generate confusion and may well result in inconsistent results"). Accordingly, in New York, as in virtually all jurisdictions, in a products liability action premised on a design defect theory, a jury finding that the product is not defective precludes a parallel finding that the manufacturer is negligent in designing the product. Lundgren v. McColgin, 96 A.D.2d 706, 464 N.Y.S.2d 317 (4th Dep't 1983). After a jury finding of no strict liability but negligence in a pure design defect case, the Lundgren court held, "[t]he jury could not have concluded that [defendant] negligently designed the override system and at the same time conclude that it was reasonably safe for its intended use." 96 A.D.2d at 706, 464 N.Y.S.2d at 318.

Similarly, in Tipton v. Michelin Tire Co., 101 F.3d 1145, 1150 (6th Cir.1996), the Sixth Circuit held that "proof of a defective product is essential to the products liability or the negligence claim." According to the Sixth Circuit, the distinction between the two claims is of "no practical significance" and a jury finding of negligence without a finding of strict liability is "legally inconsistent." Id. (citations omitted). Another example is the case of Witt v. Norfe, Inc., 725 F.2d 1277 (11th Cir. 1984). In Witt, the jury found for the defendant on the strict liability question as to whether a shower door was defective but, at the same time, found the defendant negligent. The Eleventh Circuit regarded the two findings as "irreconcilably contradictory." 725 F.2d at 1280. See also Romero v. International Harvester Co., 979 F.2d 1444 (10th Cir.1992) (jury verdict that defendant had "failed to exercise reasonable care" irreconcilable with jury verdict in favor of defendant on negligent design and strict liability claims).9

In this case, the jury was instructed with respect to the strict liability cause of action that:

A product is defective if it is not reasonably safe — that is, if the product as designed is so likely to be harmful to persons or property that a reasonable person who had actual knowledge of its potential for producing injury would conclude that it should not have been marketed as designed.

Tr. 1589-90. With respect to the negligence cause of action, the jury was instructed:

If you find that the 1991 Aerostar which plaintiff claims caused her injury was defective when put on the market by the Ford Motor...

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6 practice notes
  • Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., Docket No. 99-9405(L).
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • February 7, 2002
    ...that the mechanical features of the car would not have overcome the resulting wide open throttle condition." Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 69 F.Supp.2d 582, 599 (S.D.N.Y.1999). The court stated that Jarvis "has offered no evidence to suggest how frequently the design defect is likely to occur,"......
  • Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 2
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • February 7, 2002
    ...that the mechanical features of the car would not have overcome the resulting wide open throttle condition." Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 69 F. Supp. 2d 582, 599 (S.D.N.Y. 1999). The court stated that Jarvis "has offered no evidence to suggest how frequently the design defect is likely to occu......
  • Federico v. Ford Motor Co., No. 05-P-960.
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • September 28, 2006
    ...15, 25, 641 N.E.2d 1342 (1994). In making his decision, the judge referred to, and adopted the reasoning of, Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 69 F.Supp.2d 582 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (Jarvis), an unpublished decision by a judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,2 wh......
  • Intercollegiate Basketball v. Nat. Coll. Athletic, No. 01 Civ. 0071(MGC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • September 29, 2004
    ...the goal is to determine whether restrictions in an agreement among competitors potentially harm consumers. Virgin Atlantic, 69 F.Supp.2d at 582 (citations Page 572 Under a "quick look" analysis, a plaintiff is relieved of its initial burden of showing that the challenged restraints have an......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
6 cases
  • Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., Docket No. 99-9405(L).
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • February 7, 2002
    ...that the mechanical features of the car would not have overcome the resulting wide open throttle condition." Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 69 F.Supp.2d 582, 599 (S.D.N.Y.1999). The court stated that Jarvis "has offered no evidence to suggest how frequently the design defect is likely to occur,"......
  • Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 2
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • February 7, 2002
    ...that the mechanical features of the car would not have overcome the resulting wide open throttle condition." Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 69 F. Supp. 2d 582, 599 (S.D.N.Y. 1999). The court stated that Jarvis "has offered no evidence to suggest how frequently the design defect is likely to occu......
  • Federico v. Ford Motor Co., No. 05-P-960.
    • United States
    • Appeals Court of Massachusetts
    • September 28, 2006
    ...15, 25, 641 N.E.2d 1342 (1994). In making his decision, the judge referred to, and adopted the reasoning of, Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 69 F.Supp.2d 582 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (Jarvis), an unpublished decision by a judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,2 wh......
  • Intercollegiate Basketball v. Nat. Coll. Athletic, No. 01 Civ. 0071(MGC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • September 29, 2004
    ...the goal is to determine whether restrictions in an agreement among competitors potentially harm consumers. Virgin Atlantic, 69 F.Supp.2d at 582 (citations Page 572 Under a "quick look" analysis, a plaintiff is relieved of its initial burden of showing that the challenged restraints have an......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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