Turner v. General Motors Corp.

Decision Date13 June 1979
Docket NumberNo. B-7747,B-7747
Citation584 S.W.2d 844
PartiesRobert A. TURNER, Petitioner, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION et al., Respondents.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

STEAKLEY, Justice.

The opinion of the Court delivered March 21, 1979, and the judgment based thereon, are withdrawn. The following is now the opinion of the Court.

Robert A. Turner overturned his 1969 Chevrolet Impala sedan, manufactured and sold by General Motors Corporation, while seeking to avoid a collision with a truck. The car rolled over once and the roof caved in at the driver's corner when it contacted the ground. Although his seat belt was buckled, Turner was struck on his head and suffered a crushed vertebra resulting in paralysis. It is not contended that the design of the automobile or the roof had any part in causing the accident.

Turner sued General Motors and the dealer, Kliesing Motor Company, in a products liability action on a strict tort liability theory, alleging the uncrashworthiness of the automobile. General Motors did not interplead the driver or owner of the truck. In a venue appeal it was ruled that under this doctrine a manufacturer and retailer may be held strictly liable in tort for a defectively designed automobile which enhances the injuries of the plaintiff but does not cause the accident. Turner v. General Motors Corp., 514 S.W.2d 497 (Tex.Civ.App.1974, writ ref'd n. r. e.).

Upon the subsequent trial of the merits of Turner's action now before us the jury answered the following issue in the affirmative:

SPECIAL ISSUE NO. 1

Do you find from a preponderance of the evidence that at the time the automobile in question was manufactured by General Motors the roof structure was defectively designed?

By the term "defectively designed" as used in this issue is meant a design that is unreasonably dangerous.

"Unreasonably dangerous" means dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.

The jury similarly answered the producing cause issue and in response to the issue on damages assessed the sum of $1,140,000.

The trial court judgment for Turner was reversed by the Court of Civil Appeals and the cause remanded. 567 S.W.2d 812. After stating that the definition of "unreasonably dangerous" given the jury by the trial court was in substantially the same language used in General Motors Corp. v. Hopkins, 548 S.W.2d 344 (Tex.1977), the Court of Civil Appeals ruled that this was not proper in a crashworthiness case and that the jury should be instructed to balance specific factors in determining whether or not the design causing the injury was defective:

We are of the opinion that the following factors should be balanced, as directed by Turner, in making the determination of whether the design is or is not defective: (1) the utility of the product to the user and to the public as a whole weighed against the gravity and likelihood of injury from its use; (2) the availability of a substitute product which would meet the same need and not be unsafe or unreasonably expensive; (3) the manufacturer's ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without seriously impairing its usefulness or significantly increasing its costs; (4) the user's anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions.

567 S.W.2d at 818.

The court also ruled that the trial court erred in excluding evidence that an industry practice or standard for roof strength, offered by General Motors and admitted into evidence, was subsequently embodied in Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 216. The standard was promulgated in December, 1971, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and became effective on September 1, 1973. The car in question was purchased in 1969 and the accident occurred in April, 1971.

Turner applied for and was granted writ of error to review these rulings of the intermediate court. General Motors in its reply asserted (a) that the trial court also erred in its definition of unreasonably dangerous by not requiring that consumer expectations be reasonable, and in refusing the alternate prudent manufacturer standard; (b) that a balancing factor instruction in specific respects required by the Court of Civil Appeals is essential in a conscious design crashworthiness case, as here, in distinction to cases where the defect is alleged to have caused the accident as well as the resulting injury; and (c) that the only authoritative standard for roof strength was the one subsequently adopted by the federal government and the jury was entitled to know both the standard itself, and its source.

General Motors and Kliesing Motor Company filed conditional applications for writ which were also granted. Certain of their points will be summarized because of their relevance to the discussion and rulings immediately to follow; others will be noted thereafter. It is argued that conscious design cases should be more properly conceived as negligence or engineering malpractice cases with the existence of a defective design dependent upon the reasonableness of the manufacturer's action and the due care that was exercised; the fact finders should be required to evaluate the conduct of the manufacturer and not to evaluate the product itself; and that conscious design cases in crashworthiness contexts are different in principle from all other conscious design cases where the alleged defect caused the accident.

We will reverse the judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals and affirm the judgment of the trial court. In doing so we reaffirm the application of the principles of strict liability to suits based on conscious design defects in products entering the channels of commerce. We further hold:

1. The rules of strict liability govern in cases where the defect caused the accident and the resulting injuries, and in crashworthiness cases where the defect is the cause of injuries only. Evidence upon the factors of risk and utility such as those enumerated by the Court of Civil Appeals, as well as upon the expectations of the ordinary consumer, may be admissible in the trial of such cases. As to this, however, we disapprove the holding of the Court of Civil Appeals that the jury is to be instructed to balance specifically enumerated factors, whether those listed by the Court of Civil Appeals, or otherwise.

2. The definition of "unreasonably dangerous" given by the trial court is consistent with our previous writings in Henderson v. Ford Motor Co., 519 S.W.2d 87 (Tex.1974) and General Motors Corp. v. Hopkins, 548 S.W.2d 344 (Tex.1977). See also Signal Oil & Gas Co. v. Universal Oil Products, 572 S.W.2d 320 (Tex.1978); Gonzales v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 571 S.W.2d 867 (Tex.1978); Miller v. Bock Laundry Machine Co., 568 S.W.2d 648 (Tex.1977); and Rourke v. Garza, 530 S.W.2d 794 (Tex.1975).

3. Upon re-examination of these previous writings we have determined that henceforth in the trial of strict liability cases involving design defects the issue and accompanying instruction will not include either the element of the ordinary consumer or of the prudent manufacturer; to the extent of any conflict in such respects, Henderson and Hopkins are overruled. The jury may be instructed in general terms to consider the utility of the product and the risks involved in its use. 1

The Crashworthiness Doctrine

The concept of defect is central to a products liability action brought on a strict tort liability theory, whether the defect be in conscious design, or in the manufacture of the product, or in the marketing of the product. See, Henderson v. Ford Motor Co., 519 S.W.2d 87 (Tex.1974); Darryl v. Ford Motor Co., 440 S.W.2d 630 (Tex.1969); McKisson v. Sales Affiliates, Inc., 416 S.W.2d 787 (Tex.1967). 2

Citing McKisson v. Sales Affiliates, Inc., 416 S.W.2d 787 (Tex.1967), we wrote in Pittsburg Coca-Cola Bottling Works of Pittsburg v. Ponder, 443 S.W.2d 546 (Tex.1969), of our final yield to the irrefutable logic that the rule of strict liability is the only practical vehicle for protecting the public against harm caused by defective products. We recognized that McKisson committed the Court to the rule of strict liability expressed in Section 402A of The American Law Institute's Restatement of the Law of Torts (2d Ed.). We wrote further:

The prime requirement for imposing liability on a seller under the rule of strict liability is proof by the plaintiff that he was injured because of a defective condition in the product when it left the hands of the particular seller. Jack Roach-Bissonet, Inc. v. Puskar, 417 S.W.2d 262, at 278 (Tex.1967). This is not to say that proof of the defect must be made by direct or opinion evidence; it usually can only be made by circumstantial evidence. As an example, see Darryl v. Ford Motor Co., (440 S.W.2d 630 (Tex.1969)).

443 S.W.2d at 548.

Later, in Henderson v. Ford Motor Co., 519 S.W.2d 87, at 92, we wrote:

The car manufacturer and its dealer are liable for unreasonably dangerous products whether designed defectively or improperly and produced as designed, or whether designed perfectly but improperly or defectively produced.

A logical extension of the rationale of these decisions is succinctly stated in Huff v. White Motor Corp., 565 F.2d 104, 109 (7th Cir. 1977):

One who is injured as a result of a mechanical defect in a motor vehicle should be protected under the...

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