Jeep Corp. v. Murray, No. 15354

Docket NºNo. 15354
Citation101 Nev. 640, 708 P.2d 297
Case DateOctober 29, 1985
CourtSupreme Court of Nevada

Page 297

708 P.2d 297
101 Nev. 640, 54 USLW 2292, Prod.Liab.Rep.
(CCH) P 10,751
JEEP CORPORATION, a Nevada corporation; American Motors
Corporation, a foreign corporation; Cal-Vada
Auto, a Nevada corporation, Appellants
and Cross-Respondents,
v.
Owen Patrick MURRAY, Respondent and Cross-Appellant.
No. 15354.
Supreme Court of Nevada.
Oct. 29, 1985.

Page 299

Lionel, Sawyer & Collins and David N. Frederick, Las Vegas, Erickson, Thorpe, Swainston & Cobb and George W. Swainston, Reno, for appellants and cross-respondents Jeep Corp. and American Motors Corp.

Shamberger, Georgeson, McQuaid & Thompson and Robert A. McQuaid, Reno, Sala, McAuliffe, White & Long and Donald C. Long, Reno, for appellant and cross-respondent Cal-Vada Auto.

Peter Chase Neumann and Kathryn Landreth, Reno, for respondent and cross-appellant.

Beckley, Singleton, De Lanoy & Jemison and Rex A. Jemison, Las Vegas, for Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n of U.S. and Product Liability Advisory Council, amici curiae.

[101 Nev. 641] David Gamble, Carson City, Michael Starr, Washington, D.C., and Daniel F. Sullivan, Seattle, Wash., for American Trial Lawyers Ass'n, amicus curiae.

[101 Nev. 642] OPINION

BERKSON, District Judge: 1

In March, 1978, respondent Owen Patrick Murray (Murray) purchased a 1970 Jeep CJ-5 which had previously been sold by appellant Cal-Vada Auto. On August 19, 1978, Murray drove the Jeep to visit a friend at her family's ranch, located some 60 miles from Wells, Nevada. Murray left the ranch around midnight, traveling along North Ruby Valley Road. A witness later testified that Murray's speed as he drove away was consistent with her own prudent driving habits.

Early the next morning, about one-quarter mile from the point Murray was last seen, he was found unconscious, lying about 25 feet from the edge of the road. About 75-80 feet from the road lay [101 Nev. 643] the Jeep, upside down, with its ignition and tape deck still on. Evidence at the scene suggested the vehicle had swerved from side to side before going off the road. There were apparently no witnesses to the accident and Murray, who suffered a severe brain injury, has no memory of what happened. As a result of the accident, Murray, then 21 years old and a college forestry student, was rendered paraplegic.

Murray filed suit against Cal-Vada and the vehicle's manufacturers, appellants Jeep Corporation and American Motors Corporation. He alleged that appellants were strictly liable in tort for the manufacture and sale of a defective product and for misrepresentation concerning the product. In substance, Murray contended that the design of the Jeep CJ-5 rendered it inherently uncontrollable and unstable. He claimed that appellants, despite their knowledge of the vehicle's characteristics, failed to warn consumers about them and, indeed, represented that the vehicle could be used safely in a variety of demanding driving conditions. His complaint prayed for an award of compensatory and punitive damages.

After a four-week trial, a jury returned a verdict of $815,000 in Murray's favor. No punitive damages were awarded because of the district court's refusal to give an instruction on that claim. On appeal, appellants challenge a number of the district court's rulings. Murray has cross-appealed, assigning error to the district court's refusal to instruct the jury on punitive damages. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the judgment in its entirety.

THE APPEAL

I. The Causation Issue

Appellants first contend that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Murray failed to establish that any defect in the vehicle caused the accident. They argue that Murray's accident reconstruction expert, Dr. Michael Kaplan, lacked an adequate factual foundation for his opinions and was therefore incompetent to testify concerning the cause of the accident.

Page 300

Apart from Dr. Kaplan's testimony, appellants argue, there was insufficient evidence of causation to satisfy Murray's burden of proof.

While we have held that an expert may not base an opinion on mere speculation or conjecture, we are satisfied that the facts on which Dr. Kaplan relied were not of this character. Dr. Kaplan carefully examined the accident scene and the physical evidence still there. He spoke with persons present at the scene on the morning the accident was discovered. These persons pointed out the location where Murray was found and the spot at which the Jeep came to rest. They also described the tire marks left by the [101 Nev. 644] Jeep as it swerved out of control. To assess the damage done to the vehicle, Kaplan examined the appraiser's damage report and photographs taken of the vehicle after the accident. He also spoke with a subsequent owner of the Jeep, who had repaired it. Finally, the record reflects that Dr. Kaplan was familiar with the handling and rollover characteristics of the Jeep CJ-5, based upon his review of highway accident statistics, his study of other Jeep accidents, and his observation of numerous rollover tests involving the CJ-5.

On this basis, Kaplan concluded that Murray's Jeep began to roll while the vehicle was traveling at a speed of 25-30 miles per hour, that the rollover occurred while the Jeep was still on the road, and that the rollover was the result of the Jeep's defective design. While these conclusions, and the investigation which produced them, have been strenuously attacked by appellants, we believe the points raised affected only the weight and credibility of Kaplan's testimony, not its admissibility. See Krehnke v. Farmers Union Co-op. Ass'n, 199 Neb. 632, 260 N.W.2d 601, 607-08 (1977). On the record before us, we are not persuaded that the district court abused its discretion in allowing Dr. Kaplan to testify.

What we have said, of course, largely disposes of appellants' claim that there was insufficient evidence of causation. Even apart from Dr. Kaplan's reconstruction testimony, however, there was evidence upon which the jury could reasonably find causation. Murray produced evidence that the Jeep CJ-5 is highly susceptible to loss of control and rollover. For example, tests described by Dr. Kaplan indicate that the CJ-5 can overturn during an avoidance maneuver, on a flat surface, at speeds as low as 28 miles per hour. Although Murray's speed at the time he lost control is unknown, there was evidence that he was a habitually careful driver who never exceeded the speed limit and had never been cited for a moving traffic violation. 2 It appears that the road over which Murray was traveling was flat, straight, and devoid of any "tripping" mechanism at the location of the accident. There is no indication that Murray was physically or mentally impaired at the time the accident occurred. Although appellants have suggested a number of alternative causes of the accident, Murray was not required to negate them. Stackiewicz v. Nissan Motor Corp., 100 Nev. 443, 447, 686 P.2d 925, 927 (1984). The [101 Nev. 645] evidence he produced, though circumstantial, sufficiently established causation. Id. at 452, 686 P.2d at 930. The credibility of that evidence was a matter for the jury. Id. "In this case, as in most cases, positive proof either way is not available. Inferences must be drawn from the best available evidence produced by each side." Shoshone Coca-Cola v. Dolinski, 82 Nev. 439, 444, 420 P.2d 855, 858 (1966).

Appellants were not entitled to judgment as a matter of law; their motions for dismissal and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict were thus properly denied. Stackiewicz, 100 Nev. at 447, 686 P.2d at 927 (application for judgment n.o.v. should be refused where there is evidence tending to support the verdict); Roche v. Schartz, 82 Nev. 409, 412, 419 P.2d 779, 780 (1966)

Page 301

(where motion for dismissal pursuant to NRCP 41(b) is made, evidence must be interpreted in light most favorable to plaintiff).

II. Seat Belt Evidence

Murray's Jeep was equipped with seat belts. Prior to trial, the district court entered an order excluding all evidence concerning the presence and use of the belts. Appellants claim this was error. We cannot agree.

At the outset, we have serious doubts about the relevance of the evidence. Appellants argue, for example, that Murray's asserted failure to use his seat belt was relevant to show comparative negligence. Pending a legislative declaration to the contrary, however, we have refused to apply notions of comparative fault in the context of strict products liability. See generally Young's Machine Co. v. Long, 100 Nev. 692, 692 P.2d 24 (1984).

Whether the evidence was relevant or not, we believe that the district court acted properly in excluding it. Due to the circumstances of the accident, it was by no means clear whether Murray had used his seat belt. The fact that Murray was ejected from the vehicle, of course, indicated that he was not wearing the belt. On the other hand, Murray was prepared to present evidence that he habitually used the seat belt, that the belt unlatched during the accident due to the design of the latching mechanism, and that this itself was a defect in the vehicle. Also in dispute was the question of whether Murray's injuries might have been avoided had the seat belt been worn.

As the district court concluded, injection of these issues into the case would have entailed substantial expert testimony and a corresponding increase in the length of the trial. Given the difficulties of proof, the district court undoubtedly concluded that litigating these questions would have confused the...

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22 practice notes
  • K-Mart Corp. v. Washington, K-MART
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court of Nevada
    • December 30, 1993
    ...4 The trial court's determination will not be overturned absent manifest error or abuse of discretion. See Jeep Corporation v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 646, 708 P.2d 297, 301 (1985). Discussing appellate review of such determinations, this court has stated, " '[i]f Page 279 the evidence is rel......
  • Hyjek v. Anthony Industries, K-2
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • October 9, 1997
    ...Supreme Court held that the rule "comes into play only where negligence or other 'culpable' conduct is alleged." Jeep Corp. v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 708 P.2d 297, 302 (1985). Strict liability, the court stated, does not include either of those issues. Id. In a products liability case the fo......
  • Duchess v. Langston Corp.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 19, 2001
    ...claim focus upon the condition of the product at issue. See generally Ault, 117 Cal.Rptr. 812, 528 P.2d at 1152; Jeep Corp. v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 708 P.2d 297, 302 (1985) (holding that the bar against the admission of evidence of subsequent remedial measures "comes into play only where n......
  • Ainsworth v. Combined Ins. Co. of America, No. 17625
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court of Nevada
    • May 19, 1989
    ...finding of oppression is amply justified. 8 As the opinion points out, our [105 Nev. 249] previous decision in Jeep Corporation v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 650, 708 P.2d 297, 304 (1985), clearly indicates that "oppression," sufficient to warrant an award of punitive damages under NRS 42.010, "......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
22 cases
  • K-Mart Corp. v. Washington, K-MART
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court of Nevada
    • December 30, 1993
    ...4 The trial court's determination will not be overturned absent manifest error or abuse of discretion. See Jeep Corporation v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 646, 708 P.2d 297, 301 (1985). Discussing appellate review of such determinations, this court has stated, " '[i]f Page 279 the evidence is rel......
  • Hyjek v. Anthony Industries, K-2
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Washington
    • October 9, 1997
    ...Supreme Court held that the rule "comes into play only where negligence or other 'culpable' conduct is alleged." Jeep Corp. v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 708 P.2d 297, 302 (1985). Strict liability, the court stated, does not include either of those issues. Id. In a products liability case the fo......
  • Duchess v. Langston Corp.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • April 19, 2001
    ...claim focus upon the condition of the product at issue. See generally Ault, 117 Cal.Rptr. 812, 528 P.2d at 1152; Jeep Corp. v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 708 P.2d 297, 302 (1985) (holding that the bar against the admission of evidence of subsequent remedial measures "comes into play only where n......
  • Ainsworth v. Combined Ins. Co. of America, No. 17625
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court of Nevada
    • May 19, 1989
    ...finding of oppression is amply justified. 8 As the opinion points out, our [105 Nev. 249] previous decision in Jeep Corporation v. Murray, 101 Nev. 640, 650, 708 P.2d 297, 304 (1985), clearly indicates that "oppression," sufficient to warrant an award of punitive damages under NRS 42.010, "......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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