Soule v. General Motors Corp.

Decision Date27 October 1994
Docket NumberNo. S033144,S033144
Citation34 Cal.Rptr.2d 607,8 Cal.4th 548,882 P.2d 298
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 882 P.2d 298, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,046 Terri F. SOULE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant and Appellant.

Grace, Skocypec, Cosgrove & Schirm, Barry R. Schirm, Jan L. Pocatera, Susan L. Olson, Lisa M. Kralik, McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, David M. Heilbron, Leslie G. Landau and Robert A. Brundage, for defendant and appellant.

Harry M. Grossman as amicus curiae on behalf of defendant and appellant.

Charlotte E. Costan, Horton, Barbaro & Reilly, Frank P. Barbaro and Douglas A. Scott, for plaintiff and respondent.

Ian Herzog, Douglas Devries, Leonard Sachs, Bruce Broillet, David Rosen, Thomas Stolpman, Gary Paul, Robert Steinberg, Roland Wrinkle, Harvey R. Levine, Leonard Esquina, Greene, Broillet, Taylor & Wheeler, Christine Spagnoli, Esner, Marylander, Zakheim & Higa, Stuart B. Esner and Grant Marylander as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and respondent.

BAXTER, Justice.

Plaintiff's ankles were badly injured when her General Motors (GM) car collided with another vehicle. She sued GM, asserting that defects in her automobile allowed its left front wheel to break free, collapse rearward, and smash the floorboard into her feet. GM denied any defect and claimed that the force of the collision itself was the sole cause of the injuries. Expert witnesses debated the issues at length. Plaintiff prevailed at trial, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment.

We granted review to resolve three questions. First, may a product's design be found defective on grounds that the product's performance fell below the safety expectations of the ordinary consumer (see Barker v. Lull Engineering Co. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 413, 426-432, 143 Cal.Rptr. 225, 573 P.2d 443) if the question of how safely the product should have performed cannot be answered by the common experience of its users? Second, in an action for enhanced collision injuries caused by an uncrashworthy vehicle, where a correct general instruction on legal cause is given, is it error to refuse a defense instruction that any defect cannot be a legal cause of injury if the accident would have produced the same injury even without the defect? Third, if the refusal is error, is it reversible per se? (See, e.g., Self v. General Motors Corp. (1974) 42 Cal.App.3d 1, 10-11, 116 Cal.Rptr. 575.)

We reach the following conclusions: The trial court erred by giving an "ordinary consumer expectations" instruction in this complex case. Moreover, the court should have granted GM's request for a special instruction explaining its correct theory of legal cause. However, neither error warrants reversal unless it caused actual prejudice, and both errors were harmless on this record. We will therefore affirm the Court of Appeal's judgment.

FACTS

On the early afternoon of January 16, 1984, plaintiff was driving her 1982 Camaro in the southbound center lane of Bolsa Chica Road, an arterial street in Westminster. There was a slight drizzle, the roadway was damp, and apparently plaintiff was not wearing her seat belt. A 1972 Datsun, approaching northbound, suddenly skidded into the path of plaintiff's car. The Datsun's left rear quarter struck plaintiff's Camaro in an area near the left front wheel. Estimates of the vehicles' combined closing speeds on impact vary from 30 to 70 miles per hour. 1

The collision bent the Camaro's frame adjacent to the wheel and tore loose the bracket that attached the wheel assembly (specifically, the lower control arm) to the frame. As a result, the wheel collapsed rearward and inward. The wheel hit the underside of the "toe pan"--the slanted floorboard area beneath the pedals--causing the toe pan to crumple, or "deform," upward into the passenger compartment.

Plaintiff received a fractured rib and relatively minor scalp and knee injuries. Her most severe injuries were fractures of both ankles, and the more serious of these was the compound compression fracture of her left ankle. This injury never healed properly. In order to relieve plaintiff's pain, an orthopedic surgeon fused the joint. As a permanent result, plaintiff cannot flex her left ankle. She walks with considerable difficulty, and her condition is expected to deteriorate.

After the accident, the Camaro was acquired by a salvage dealer, Noah Hipolito. Soon thereafter, plaintiff's son, Jeffrey Bishop, and her original attorney, Richard Hawkins , each inspected and photographed the car and its damaged floorboard area. The failed bracket assembly was retrieved. However, Hipolito later discarded the damaged toe pan, repaired the Camaro, and resold it. Thus, except for the bracket assembly, no part of the vehicle was retained as evidence.

Plaintiff sued GM for her ankle injuries, asserting a theory of strict tort liability for a defective product. She claimed the severe trauma to her ankles was not a natural consequence of the accident, but occurred when the collapse of the Camaro's wheel caused the toe pan to crush violently upward against her feet. Plaintiff attributed the wheel collapse to a manufacturing defect, the substandard quality of the weld attaching the lower control arm bracket to the frame. She also claimed that the placement of the bracket, and the configuration of the frame, were defective designs because they did not limit the wheel's rearward travel in the event the bracket should fail.

The available physical and circumstantial evidence left room for debate about the exact angle and force of the impact and the extent to which the toe pan had actually deformed. The issues of defect and causation were addressed through numerous experts produced by both sides in such areas as biomechanics, metallurgy, orthopedics, design engineering, and crash-test simulation.

Plaintiff submitted the results of crash tests, and also asserted the similarity of another real-world collision involving a 1987 Camaro driven by Dana Carr. According to plaintiff's experts, these examples indicated that Camaro accidents of similar direction and force do not generally produce wheel bracket assembly failure, extensive toe pan deformation, or severe ankle injuries such as those plaintiff had experienced. These experts opined that without the deformation of the toe pan in plaintiff's car, her accident could not have produced enough force to fracture her ankles.

A metallurgist testifying on plaintiff's behalf examined the failed bracket from her car. He concluded that its weld was particularly weak because of excess "porosity" caused by improper welding techniques. Plaintiff's experts also emphasized the alternative frame and bracket design used by the Ford Mustang of comparable model years. They asserted that the Mustang's design, unlike the Camaro's, provided protection against unlimited rearward travel of the wheel should a bracket assembly give way.

GM's metallurgist disputed the claims of excessive weakness or porosity in the bracket weld. Expert witnesses for GM also countered the assertions of defective design. GM asserted that the Camaro's bracket was overdesigned to withstand forces in excess of all expected uses. According to expert testimony adduced by GM, the Mustang's alternative frame and bracket configuration did not fit the Camaro's overall design goals and was not distinctly safer for all collision stresses to which the vehicle might be subjected. Indeed, one witness noted, at least one more recent Ford product had adopted the Camaro's design.

A second major thrust of GM's defense was that the force of the collision, rather than any product defect, was the sole cause of plaintiff's ankle injuries. Using the results of accident reconstruction, computer simulations, and actual crash tests, GM sought to prove that the probable collision force concentrated on the left front wheel of plaintiff's Camaro exceeded the "yield strength" of any feasible weld or design.

By similar means, GM also sought to show that plaintiff's ankle injuries were not caused by the upward movement of the toe pan, but by the inertial forward and downward motion of plaintiff's unrestrained body and legs against the toe pan at the instant of impact. From plaintiff's other injuries, and from photographs showing the general pattern of damage to the Camaro's interior, GM's experts inferred that plaintiff was not wearing her seat belt and had locked or braced her legs in reaction to the imminent collision.

Hence, they concluded, her rigid ankles had absorbed the full force of her inertial forward movement, which was sufficient to cause the fractures. Based on their test results, GM's witnesses opined that plaintiff's ankles had probably moved forward, struck the toe pan, and broken before significant deformation of the toe pan occurred.

The court instructed the jury that a manufacturer is liable for "enhanced" injuries caused by a manufacturing or design defect in its product while the product is being used in a foreseeable way. Over GM's objection, the court gave the standard design defect instruction without modification. (See BAJI No. 9.00.5 (7th ed. 1986).) This instruction advised that a product is defective in design "if it fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner or if there is a risk of danger inherent in the design which outweighs the benefit of the design." (Italics added.)

The jury was also told that in order to establish liability for a design defect under the "ordinary consumer expectations" standard, plaintiff must show (1) the manufacturer's product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect, (2) the defect existed when the product left the manufacturer's possession, (3) the defect was a "legal cause" of plaintiff's "enhanced injury," and (4) the product was used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

With respect to all theories of liability, the...

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