Minton v. Honda of American Mfg., Inc.

Decision Date15 October 1997
Docket NumberNos. 96-2006,96-2025,s. 96-2006
Citation684 N.E.2d 648,80 Ohio St.3d 62
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 15,083 MINTON, Exr., Appellant, v. HONDA OF AMERICA MANUFACTURING, INC. et al., Appellees.
CourtOhio Supreme Court


A state tort claim based upon a manufacturer's failure to equip its automobiles with air bags is not expressly or impliedly preempted by former Section 1381 et seq., Title 15, U.S.Code and regulations promulgated thereunder.

On March 14, 1991, Jeffery L. Minton was driving his 1990 Honda Accord on Hardin Road in Washington Township, Miami County, Ohio. A vehicle traveling in the opposite direction crossed the center of the road and collided virtually head-on with Minton's automobile. Although Minton was wearing both an automatic shoulder belt and a manual seat belt at the time of the accident, he sustained fatal head injuries.

On February 11, 1993, appellant, Mary Ann Minton, as executor 1 of the estate of Jeffery Minton, filed a survivorship cause of action on behalf of the estate of Jeffery and a wrongful death cause of action on behalf of (1) herself as surviving spouse, (2) Travis Minton, the eleven-year-old son of Jeffery and Mary Ann, (3) the parents of Jeffery, and (4) the other next of kin of Jeffery. The cause of action sounded in products liability and was filed against appellees Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc. and others (collectively referred to as "Honda"). In the complaint, appellant alleged, inter alia, that the 1990 Accord driven by Jeffery and manufactured by Honda was defectively designed. Appellant's complaint was based in part on the fact that the driver's-side restraint system failed to properly protect Jeffery during the accident.

Prior to trial, Honda filed a motion in limine. Honda sought to preclude evidence by appellant that the 1990 Accord did not contain an air bag. In the motion, Honda asserted, among other things, that any claim pertaining to the absence of an air bag was preempted by federal law.

The trial court granted Honda's motion in limine. At trial, appellant attempted to demonstrate that the shoulder belt restraint system in the 1990 Accord was defectively designed. Appellant was allowed to introduce evidence of the belt geometry in a 1987 Honda Civic. However, appellant was not allowed to introduce evidence of subsequent changes made by Honda to its Accords and incorporated in 1992 models. According to appellant, 1992 Accords were safer in front-end collisions because the shoulder belt mechanisms in 1992 models had been changed and because 1992 Accords contained air bags.

During trial, the following colloquy occurred between the attorneys for the parties and the trial court with respect to Honda's motion in limine and the evidence proffered by appellant:

"MR. SHEA [counsel for appellant]: As Your Honor remembers, we have a proffer. There was a motion in limine filed with the Court prior to trial concerning several subjects, one of which was the subject of air bags. The Plaintiff, in its brief to the Court, outlined the law. At this time, we just want to make our proffer of evidence. The Plaintiff has requested that the testimony be allowed, not only because preemption to the air bag as a defect, there are states and there is current law that says there's not preemption, but also for other purposes. The fact that it is an alternative design is not preemptive. Under the risk benefit, alternative designs are permitted, and the fact that the alternative design is one of those which should be considered by the Court, we believe that our exhibits should have been admitted.

"Additionally, the fact of remedial repair, and this does not only go to the air bags, it goes to the location of the B pillar belt geometry which are shown in Plaintiff's exhibits that have been excluded, that the Defendant, in 1992, and in subsequent years, located the belt geometry point in the proper location, or at least in a much preferred location than it was in the 1990 Honda vehicle which was the identical platform of the 1992.

"The Plaintiff requested that it be permitted to show simply that location, even if the air bag information were removed because of other concerns that the Court had, which we were willing to do.

"The same is true of the exhibits which deal with brochures depicting the B pillar placement point, as well as the air bag system, were relevant under the claims of the parties.

"Finally, the B pillar placement point as remedy of a defect, we believe that the evidence should have been allowed to show that Honda cured the bad, the poor placement of the B pillar placement for the belt geometry, and that the exhibits go to that point as well to show evidence of cure for the B pillar placement.

" * * *

"MR. BODE [counsel for Honda]: Your Honor, we would stand on the position we took in our initial brief in the motion in limine that the issue of an air bag is preempted by Federal law, and that any attempt to compare the 1990 Honda Accord with a vehicle that is equipped with, as part of its occupant restraint system, an air bag is preempted and a comparison that is not allowed by the law.

" * * *

"THE COURT: Very well. The Court has noted both the memoranda submitted by Counsel and does not alter its position from its previously announced position that the exhibits and the subject matter described will not be included. The exhibits, as listed by Counsel for Plaintiff, shall be contained as part of the proffer."

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Honda. Appellant then appealed to the Court of Appeals for Montgomery County. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

The court noted initially that the change in design of the shoulder belt restraint system in 1992 Accords was a subsequent remedial measure taken by Honda. In this regard, the court, citing McFarland v. Bruno Mach. Corp. (1994), 68 Ohio St.3d 305, 626 N.E.2d 659, agreed with appellant that "evidence of subsequent remedial measures is admissible to prove design defects in strict liability cases." Nevertheless, the court concluded that the trial court properly excluded any evidence of the occupant restraint system in 1992 Accords. Specifically, the court held:

"[We] agree with Honda that the evidence is inadmissible in this instance because of the nature of the restraint systems in issue. Honda utilized an automatic seatbelt as its passive restraint system in the 1990 Accord. However, in the 1992 Accord, Honda used an airbag as its passive restraint system. Therefore, pursuant to the relevant federal legislation, Honda was allowed to change the 1992 shoulder belt restrain[t] to a manual, rather than a passive, restraint system. In other words, the later model year included a shoulder belt restraint system that the driver had to pull down and fasten, while the 1990 Accord featured a shoulder belt restrain system that automatically engaged when the door was closed. Thus, the shoulder belt systems (manual versus passive) of the two model years are not truly comparable.

"At trial, Minton offered to redact the photographs [showing the belt design change] to exclude any reference to the airbag system in the 1992 Honda. In our opinion, however, the difference in the two systems would necessarily precipitate the introduction of evidence regarding the change from a passive shoulder belt to a manually operated shoulder belt, and thus would require the introduction of evidence regarding the reason for the design change (i.e., the conversion to airbag technology * * *). Since we have concluded later in this opinion that the failure to install airbags is an issue preempted by federal law, we find that evidence of the subsequent remedial change in the shoulder belt restraint system is inadmissible because it would inevitably lead to the jury's becoming aware of the fact that Honda switched to an airbag passive restraint system, thereby injecting an issue -- the failure to have used the airbag system in the 1990 model Accord -- that was preempted by federal law."

The court of appeals ultimately concluded that appellant's design defect claim based on the failure to install a driver's-side air bag was not expressly preempted by former Section 1381 et seq., Title 15, U.S.Code (now found at Section 30101 et seq., Title 49, U.S.Code) and relevant regulations promulgated thereunder. Rather, the court held that appellant's "no air bag" claim was impliedly preempted by federal law. Thereafter, the court, finding its judgment to be in conflict with the judgment of the Eleventh Appellate District in Nelson v. Ford Motor Co. (1995), 108 Ohio App.3d 158, 670 N.E.2d 307, entered an order certifying a conflict, and we determined that a conflict existed (case No. 96-2025). Minton v. Honda of Am. Mfg., Inc. (1996), 77 Ohio St.3d 1421, 670 N.E.2d 1007. 2 The cause is also before this court upon the allowance of a discretionary appeal (case No. 96-2006). The two appeals have been consolidated.

Shea & Associates, Joseph W. Shea III, Shirley A. Coffey and Andrea T. Rosenthal, Cincinnati, for appellant.

Reminger & Reminger Co., L.P.A., and Hugh J. Bode, Cleveland; and Eric A. Portuguese, Millburn, for appellees.

Nurenberg, Plevin, Heller & McCarthy Co., L.P.A., Marshall I. Nurenberg, Richard C. Alkire and Kathleen J. St. John, Cleveland, urging reversal for amicus curiae, Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers.

The Landskroner Law Firm, Ltd., Jack Landskroner, Lawrence Landskroner and Arthur Bryant, Cleveland, urging reversal for amici curiae, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, Public Citizen, Center for Auto Safety, and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

Clark, Perdue, Roberts & Scott, Robert W. Kerpsack and Dale K. Perdue, Columbus; Coben & Associates and Larry E. Coben, Scottsdale, AZ, urging reversal for amicus curiae, Raymond Richard Nelson.

Thompson, Hine & Flory, Elizabeth B. Wright, Cleveland, and James W. Wiggin, III,...

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