Swajian v. General Motors Corp., 90-1031

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Citation916 F.2d 31
Docket NumberNo. 90-1031,90-1031
Parties31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 328 Gregory SWAJIAN, Plaintiff, Appellee, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant, Appellant. . Heard
Decision Date10 May 1990

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916 F.2d 31
31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 328
Gregory SWAJIAN, Plaintiff, Appellee,
No. 90-1031.
United States Court of Appeals,
First Circuit.
Heard May 10, 1990.
Decided Oct. 10, 1990.

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Gerald C. DeMaria, with whom Robert J. Quigley, Jr., Linda E. Buffardi, and Higgins, Cavanagh and Cooney, Providence, R.I., were on brief, for defendant, appellant.

Mark S. Mandell, with whom Susan M. Carlin, and Mandell, Goodman, Famiglietti, Schwartz, Carlin & DeLuca, Ltd., Providence, R.I., were on brief for plaintiff, appellee.

Before CAMPBELL, Circuit Judge, BOWNES, Senior Circuit Judge, and TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge.

TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge.

General Motors Corporation ("GMC") appeals from a judgment for the plaintiff-appellee,

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Gregory Swajian, following a jury trial in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. For reasons stated below, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


On June 5, 1986, Maureen Swajian, wife of appellee, was driving her 1986 GMC "Jimmy" 4 X 4 when the vehicle began to sway, went out of control, and rolled over. Mrs. Swajian was thrown from the vehicle and subsequently died.

Below, Swajian claimed defects in the manufacture and design of the right rear axle and in the design of the manufacturing process for the axle assembly in a Jimmy vehicle manufactured by GMC. He alleged that the axle failed during normal operation thereby causing a rollover accident resulting in his wife's death. On appeal, GMC contends that there was no evidence that a feasible non-defective alternative axle design existed that would have made the axle safe under the circumstances of the subject accident. Moreover, no expert offered any testimony regarding how the alleged defects caused the rollover. GMC concludes that the vehicle rollover was caused solely by driver error as a result of Mrs. Swajian's intoxication.

The jury found GMC liable under the theories of strict product liability and negligence and awarded Swajian $449,033 for the loss to Mrs. Swajian's estate and $551,000 for his loss of consortium. GMC appeals various legal and evidentiary rulings of the district court, most importantly its decision to exclude all evidence of Mrs. Swajian's intoxication. After a recitation of the facts, we will address each issue raised seriatim.


Mrs. Swajian suffered from chronic juvenile diabetes and a seizure disorder. She regularly took medications to control these conditions and had taken them on the day of the accident. Moreover, after work on the day of the accident, Mrs. Swajian consumed a number of alcoholic beverages at the Boathouse Cafe. Immediately following the accident, Mrs. Swajian was taken to the hospital, where blood samples were obtained and a blood alcohol content of 0.174 was measured. Laboratory tests conducted by the Medical Examiner's office the next day measured a result as high as 0.21. A blood alcohol level of 0.10 is presumptive evidence of intoxication in Rhode Island.

At trial, five witnesses who were on Route 95 at the time of the accident testified. One of those was Eugene Berthiaume, who testified that, before rolling over, the vehicle had been swaying and swerving for 200 to 300 yards. Berthiaume testified that the Jimmy had changed lanes, but was straightened out in too quick a manner, as if the steering had been jerked back. The vehicle then began to swerve and sway, and, before the rollover the vehicle was in a level position, and no part of it had dropped to the ground. Berthiaume was the witness furthest from the scene. Daniel Mitchell, the driver closest to the vehicle at the time of the accident, testified that the Jimmy passed him in a normal manner, and when he next saw it, it was in the process of flipping over. He could not recall whether the right rear wheel was still attached to the vehicle when he saw it flipping. He became aware of the wheel only when his passenger, Kim Gallante, cautioned him about the wheel, which was rolling across the roadway. Although called as a fact witness only, Mitchell was permitted to render an opinion with respect to whether the axle fractured before the rollover sequence began.

At trial, Swajian presented three expert witnesses. Dr. Marc Richman did a metallurgical analysis of the axle and testified that the axle failed as a result of a fatigue fracture. Dr. Richman had the inboard section of the right rear axle removed from the vehicle by Paul Rounds, one of the sons of the proprietor of the garage where the vehicle was stored. The trial court refused to permit Rounds to testify, although GMC contends that he would have contradicted Dr. Richman's testimony regarding how the axle was removed. The testimony of Dr. Robert Rose and Dr. Donald Avery

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concurred with Dr. Richman's with respect to the defective design and manufacturing defect claims.

GMC called Raymond Schultz as an expert witness. Schultz testified that he videotaped demonstrations in which he intentionally cut the right axle in a vehicle similar to the subject Jimmy such that it would break during operation. Although the videotape was excluded from evidence, Schultz testified that the right rear wheel separated from the test vehicle without a rollover, and the vehicle merely slowed to a gradual stop. During cross-examination, the jury was advised that the critical element to be considered in determining whether the vehicle would have rolled over if the axle fractured, was driver input or ability to react. Although GMC moved for reconsideration of the trial court's earlier order excluding all evidence of Mrs. Swajian's intoxication, the trial judge denied the motion.


Swajian filed a motion in limine to exclude all reference to decedent's consumption of alcoholic beverages and her blood alcohol level. Firstly, he argued that the evidence of intoxication was prejudicial and inflammatory. Secondly, he argued that the theory that the accident was caused by driver error was too tenuous to support admission of the evidence. The district court granted Swajian's motion, holding that, given the "dramatic" extent of Mrs. Swajian's intoxication, under Fed.R.Evid. 403, the evidence was "unduly inflammatory and far outweighs its probative value." The trial proceeded without any mention of Mrs. Swajian's blood alcohol level.

Granting this motion denied the jury the opportunity to fairly judge this case. The district court erred in characterizing the intoxication as merely "corroborative evidence" of abnormal driving, since it is essential evidence from which the jury could infer the cause of the accident. The cause of the loss of control is the ultimate issue in the case, and, without this explanation, the...

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    ...this issue, since we ultimately remand for a new trial, we address it to provide guidance on remand. See Swajian v. Gen. Motors Corp., 916 F.2d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1990).To recap, to show Cotto violated § 2423(a), the government had to prove she transported YMP in Puerto Rico "with intent that......
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    ...In fact, a few federal courts have applied the requirements of Rule 701 with such a three-part test. See Swajian v. General Motors Corp., 916 F.2d 31, 36 (1st Cir.1990) ("For opinion testimony of a layman to be admissible three elements must be present. First, the witness must have personal......
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  • Motions
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Preparing for Trial in Federal Court
    • May 4, 2010
    ...to evaluate whether the probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice. Swajian v. General Motors Corp. , 916 F.2d 31 (1st Cir. 1990). When weighing these factors, the court should consider the following: • The importance of the proffered evidence. If the ev......
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