Madden v. Mercedes-Benz USA, Inc.

Decision Date27 January 2016
Docket NumberNo. CV–15–63,CV–15–63
Parties Eileen Madden, Appellant v. Mercedes–Benz USA, Inc., et al. Appellees
CourtArkansas Court of Appeals

David A. Hodges, Little Rock, and Timothy F. Watson, Sr., for appellant.

Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull PLLC, Little Rock, by: Steven W. Quattlebaum, E.B. Chiles IV, and Amber Davis–Tanner ; Barber Law Firm PLLC, Little Rock, by: G. Spence Fricke and A. Cale Block, for appellees Mercedes–Benz U.S. International, Inc.; Mercedes–Benz USA, LLC; and TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc.

Huckaby Law Firm, PLC, Little Rock, by: D. Michael Huckaby, Jr., and Kathryn B. Knisley, for appellees Little Rock Wholesale, Robert Vowell, and Sandra David.

Brandon J. Harrison
, Judge

This appeal arises out of an automobile collision where appellant Eileen Madden was ejected from her vehicle and sustained serious injuries. Madden sued the manufacturers and sellers of her vehicle and its seatbelt in the Jackson County Circuit Court alleging that her seatbelt was defective, that the defect caused her seatbelt to come unlatched during the collision, and that this defect proximately caused her injuries. She appeals from orders granting summary judgment to the manufacturers and sellers of her automobile and its seatbelt. We affirm.

I. Facts

Madden and her now-deceased husband, Norman, bought a used 1998 Mercedes–Benz ML320 automobile from Little Rock Wholesale in October 2004. The Bill of Sale indicated that they bought the vehicle "as is." Prior to the purchase, the vehicle's seatbelt buckle was the subject of a recall campaign. The campaign was initiated after a determination that the seatbelt buckle tabs in these vehicles had potentially been improperly staked during the manufacturing process, and the improper staking could cause the seatbelt buckle to unlatch. Pursuant to the recall campaign, this vehicle was inspected by Scott Reid in August 2003; he determined that the defect was not present. This is pertinent because on 20 March 2007, while driving the vehicle, Madden had an automobile collision with Christopher Taylor. Madden was ejected from the vehicle and was seriously injured. Although Madden maintains that she habitually wore her seatbelt—and there is evidence indicating that her injuries are consistent with seatbelt usage—the police report from the collision indicated that she was not wearing a seatbelt.

Madden spent many weeks receiving acute care for her injuries. During that time, the vehicle was determined to be a total loss, and Norman transferred the title of the vehicle to their insurance carrier on 17 April 2007. The insurance carrier then scrapped and sold the vehicle. This sale occurred without an inspection of the vehicle or its seatbelt for potential defects.

Madden filed her initial complaint on 24 May 2007, suing only Christopher Taylor for negligence.1 Later, Madden amended her complaint to include additional defendants; Mercedes–Benz U.S. International, Inc., Mercedes–Benz USA, LLC,2 TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc.3 , Little Rock Wholesale, Robert Vowell, and Sandra David4 . She pursued causes of action for negligence, products liability, and breach of warranty against Mercedes, TRW, and the LRW defendants alleging that her vehicle's seatbelt was defective, the defect caused her seatbelt to become unlatched during the collision, and the defect proximately caused her injuries.

On 15 October 2012, Mercedes and TRW filed a joint motion for summary judgment seeking the dismissal of all of Madden's claims against them. Mercedes and TRW generally argued that the presence of a defect was a necessary element of each of her claims and that she failed to offer evidence of a defect in the seatbelt attributable to either of them. The circuit court granted Mercedes and TRW's joint motion for summary judgment on 24 June 2014. On 21 July 2014, Madden filed a motion for clarification of this order. In her motion, she asked whether the court intended to grant summary judgment to Mercedes and TRW on the breach of warranty claims. The court answered that its original order granted summary judgment to Mercedes and TRW on all claims, including the breach-of-warranty claims, in an order dated 15 October 2014.

The LRW defendants moved for summary judgment on 30 June 2014. They adopted by reference the motion for summary judgment filed by Mercedes and TRW and all exhibits attached to it. Like Mercedes and TRW, they argued that Madden could not prove a defect in the vehicle attributable to them. Additionally, LRW defendant Robert Vowell asserted that he was not a proper defendant in this action because he neither bought nor sold the vehicle. This motion was granted in its entirety in an order entered on 16 October 2014. Madden's timely appeal of the orders granting summary judgment to Mercedes, TRW, and the LRW defendants on all claims followed.

II. Standard of Review

On appeal, we determine if summary judgment was appropriate based on whether the evidentiary items presented by the moving party in support of the motion leave a material question of fact unanswered. The burden of sustaining a motion for summary judgment is always the responsibility of the moving party. New Maumelle Harbor v. Rochelle, 338 Ark. 43, 991 S.W.2d 552 (1999)

. Once the moving party has established prima facie entitlement to summary judgment by affidavits, depositions, or other supporting documents, the opposing party must meet proof with proof and demonstrate the existence of a material issue of fact. Id. The court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was filed, resolving all doubts and inferences against the moving party. Meadors v. Still, 344 Ark. 307, 40 S.W.3d 294 (2001). A court may grant summary judgment only when it is clear that there are no genuine issues of material fact to be litigated and that the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Mitchell v. Lincoln, 366 Ark. 592, 237 S.W.3d 455 (2006).

III. Summary Judgment in Favor of Mercedes and TRW

Madden challenges the circuit court's order granting summary judgment in favor of Mercedes and TRW arguing that (1) she submitted proof that Mercedes and TRW supplied the seatbelt in a defective condition, and (2) the circuit court improperly granted summary judgment on her breach of warranty claims.

A. The Products–Liability Claim

To prevail in a products liability case against a supplier, a plaintiff bears the burden of proving both (1) that the product was defective when it left the defendant's control such that it was unreasonably dangerous and (2) that the defect caused the injury. Ark. Code Ann. § 4–86–102

(Repl. 2011); Higgins v. Gen. Motors Corp., 287 Ark. 390, 699 S.W.2d 741 (1985). For our purposes, the key question is whether the seatbelt was defective when it left the control of Mercedes and TRW.

The facts of this case make it difficult to establish a factual dispute on the presence of a defect. The vehicle and its seatbelt are no longer available, and they were never inspected by an expert for any party. In the absence of direct proof that the product is defective because of a manufacturing flaw, Arkansas law requires that Madden offer "substantial evidence" that "negates other possible causes of failure of the product not attributable to the defendant." Higgins, supra.

"Substantial evidence is that which is of sufficient force and character that it will compel a conclusion one way or another. It must force or induce the mind to pass beyond suspicion and conjecture." Id. Madden is not required to eliminate all other possibilities—and she need not prove her case beyond a reasonable doubt—but she must present evidence from which a jury can conclude that it is more probable than not that this occurred. Id.

The burden of sustaining a motion for summary judgment always rests with the moving party. New Maumelle Harbor, supra.

Mercedes and TRW established a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment by attaching to their motion the police report from the collision indicating that Madden was not wearing her seatbelt, information indicating that the vehicle was no longer available for inspection, and records from Scott Reid's 2003 inspection of the vehicle showing that a defect in the seatbelt was not found. Most notably, Mercedes and TRW also relied on Madden's own expert's testimony to negate the presence of a defect attributable to them. Specifically, Madden's expert, Gerald Barnett, testified that he would have to be "a psychic" to determine whether a seatbelt-latch problem existed when the vehicle was new or whether it was introduced later. Because Mercedes and TRW's joint motion for summary judgment established a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, the burden shifted to Madden to present some evidence of a defect attributable to Mercedes and TRW.

To begin, Madden clearly calls into question whether she was wearing her seatbelt during the collision. She testified that it was her habit to wear it, and Dr. Frank Peretti, testifying in his role as the associate medical examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, stated that her injuries were consistent with seatbelt usage. Nevertheless, evidence that Madden's seatbelt came unlatched during the collision does not, in and of itself, equate to evidence of a defect when the seatbelt was manufactured or supplied.

In an attempt to question the functionality of her seatbelt, Madden highlights the recall campaign for defective seatbelts that included her vehicle. The recall itself is insufficient evidence of a defect in the seatbelt. Scott Reid performed the recall inspection on the vehicle and found no defect present. He testified that he performed the inspection properly. Madden points out the short amount of time Reid dedicated to the inspection, but she offers no evidence that his inspection was inadequate or improper. Gerald Barnett even testified that he had the opinion that Reid performed the buckle...

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