Volkswagen of America, Inc. v. Young, 5

CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland
Citation272 Md. 201,321 A.2d 737
Docket NumberNo. 5,5
PartiesVOLKSWAGEN OF AMERICA, INC., et al. v. Kathryn A. YOUNG, Indiv. and as Adm'x of the Estate of James C. Young, et al. Misc.
Decision Date08 July 1974

Laidler B. Mackall, Washington, D. C. (Richard O. Cunningham, John M. Edsall, Scott R. Schoenfeld and Steptoe & Johnson, Washington, D. C., Herbert Rubin, Michael Hoenig and Herzfeld & Rubin, P. C., New York City and Hal C. B. Clagett and Sasscer, Clagett, Channing & Bucher, Upper Marlboro, on the brief), for petitioners.

John C. Joyce and F. Robert Troll, Jr., Hyattsville (Donald L. Hoage and Duckett, Orem, Christie & Beckett, Hyattsville, on the brief), for respondents.



This matter reaches us via the Uniform Certification of Questions of Law Act, Maryland Code (1974), § 12-601 et seq., of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article. 1 The case is a wrongful death action, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by the mother and the widow of James C. Young who was killed in a 1971 automobile accident in Prince George's County, Maryland. After the filing of the complaint and before any further proceedings took place, the defendants moved to certify a question of law to this Court; the plaintiffs consented; and the court issued and 'Order For Certification.' The question certified by the Order of the United States District Court is:

'Whether or not, under Maryland law, the definition of the 'intended use' of a motor vehicle includes the vehicle's involvement in a collision and thus in turn, whether a cause of action is stated against the manufacturer or importer of said vehicle in breach of warranty or negligence or absolute liability or misrepresentation by allegations that the design and manufacture of the vehicle unreasonably increased the risk of injury to occupants following a collision not caused by any defect of the vehicle.'

Compare Evans v. General Motors Corporation, 359 F.2d 822 (7th Cir. 1966), cert. den. 385 U.S. 836, 87 S.Ct. 83, 17 L.Ed.2d 70 (1966), with Larsen v. General Motors Corporation, 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968).

The statement of 'Facts Relevant to Question Certified' contained in the Order of the United States District Court is as follows:

'This is an action brought by plaintiffs against an automobile manufacturer who manufactures Volkswagen automobiles in Germany (VWAG) and against an importer of Volkswagen automobiles (VWOA), in which plaintiffs allege the wrongful death of plaintiffs' decedent, survival of decedent's claim and loss of consortium of decedent's widow based on breach of warranty, negligence, absolute liability and misrepresentation.

'The action allegedly grows out of a Maryland automobile accident in which plaintiffs' decedent, operating a Volkswagen in a northerly direction, stopped at a stop light and thereafter the Volkswagen was struck in the rear by another vehicle negligently driven in the same direction.

'The complaint alleges that immediately upon collision the Volkswagen was propelled forward and the seat assembly failed, resulting in plaintiffs' decedent being thrown into the rear portion of the Volkswagen where he allegedly suffered injuries which resulted in his death. The complaint alleges that the injuries were caused by the design and manufacture of the seat assembly and the design and manufacture of the passenger compartment structures, surfaces and protrusions.

'Plaintiffs do not allege that any defect in the Volkswagen caused or contributed to the collision, but all causes of action alleged are based upon the so-called 'crashworthy doctrine'-that the 'intended use' of a motor vehicle includes the vehicle's involvement in collisions and thus in turn, that there is a duty to design and manufacture the vehicle so as not to unreasonably increase the risk of injury to occupants following a collision not caused by a defect in the vehicle.'

The Order of the United States District Court further specified that the phrasing of the certified question was not intended to restrict our consideration of the problems involved and the issues as we perceive them in light of the complaint in the case.

The complaint in the case was attached to the 'Order For Certification,' and it reveals certain additional detail concerning the factual allegations. The Volkswagen which James C. Young was operating at the time of the accident was a 1968 'Type I Beetle Sedan.' It was purchased on March 30, 1968 by the deceased in the state of Alabama. It was alleged that '(d)uring the course of said purchase, plaintiffs' decedent relied on advertisements by the defendants that he had seen, heard, and read in the communications media stating or implying that said Volkswagen was sound and fit for its intended and foreseeable purposes to be used as a passenger automobile on the streets and highways of the United States of America.' It was further alleged that the vehicle was 'defectively designed, manufactured, and marketed with defects which rendered it structurally hazardous, not merchantable, and not fit for the purpose intended' because the seat assembly was 'unreasonably vulnerable to separation from the floor upon collision' and '(t)he rear passenger compartment structures, surfaces and protrusions . . . allowed an unreasonable risk of injury upon collision . . ..' The nature of the claimed defective design of the car was more specifically set forth in the allegations concerning the injury:

'. . . (T)he vehicle of plaintiffs' decedent was struck in the rear portion thereof by a 1967 Ford negligently driven in the same direction by one William Benjamin Benson. Immediately upon collision the car driven by plaintiffs' decedent was propelled forward and the seat assembly unit, seat frame, seat bracing pieces, seat adjustment merchanism, seat reinforcements and metal tracks to which the seat itself was fastened, hereinafter collectively referred to as the 'seat assembly,' failed to withstand the impact against the rear of the vehicle with the direct and proximate result that the driver's seat separated from the floor of the car causing it and James C. Young, deceased, to be thrown violently into the rear portion of said car where his head, body and torso impacted into and was impacted by various inadequate and defectively designed passenger compartment structures, surfaces and protrusions.'

The plaintiffs went on to allege that James Young's death directly resulted from the asserted design defects. Finally, it was alleged that the defendants had 'actual notice and knowledge' of the defective seat assembly and rear compartment defects because of surveys and reports given to them and studies made by various testing institutions; that, notwithstanding these reports, defendants gave no warning to Volkswagen owners and operators generally or to James Young in particular; and that the defects were 'latent and hidden.' Several studies from named testing organizations were listed in the complaint.

In light of the factual allegations of the instant complaint, and with the qualifications hereinafter set forth, we answer the 'Question Certified' in the affirmative. The 'intended use' or 'intended purpose' of an automobile, in our view, is not merely to provide transportation. It is to provide reasonably safe transportation. The complaint in this case was sufficient, we believe, to set forth a cause of action in negligence under Maryland law.

This is the first case to reach this Court concerning the extent of an automobile manufacturer's liability for a design defect resulting in enhanced injuries in a motor vehicle accident, where the defect did not cause the initial impact or movement of the injured person. Such cases are often called 'second collision' cases or 'automobile crashworthiness' cases. They differ from other products liability cases involving defective automobiles by the combination of two factors. First, the alleged defect is in the design of the automobile rather than a negligent deviation during the construction or assembly process from the manner in which the vehicle was supposed to be made. The latter is usually called a 'construction defect.' 2 Second, the defect is not the cause of the initial impact. Typically, the actions of the driver of the car in which the plaintiff is riding, or the actions of the driver of another vehicle, or the actions of some third person, cause an initial disruption or impact which in turn results in the plaintiff's colliding with the interior (or occasionally the exterior) of the car. The plaintiff's collision with the car is the so-called 'second collision.' The issue of whether the automobile manufacturer has a duty to take reasonable steps to design its vehicles so as to minimize the injuries caused by 'second collisions' has engendered much controversy and comment throughout the nation.

The principal case holding that an automobile manufacturer has no duty to design its cars so as to minimize the injuries suffered in automobile accidents is Evans v. General Motors Corporation, 359 F.2d 822 (7th Cir. 1966), cert. denied 385 U.S. 836, 87 S.Ct. 83, 17 L.Ed.2d 70 (1966). The plaintiff in Evans was killed when his 1961 Chevrolet station wagon was struck broadside by another car. He claimed that General Motors was negligent in designing the frame of his car, inasmuch as an 'X' type frame rather than a box or perimeter type frame was used, contrary to the construction of some other cars. The claim was that an 'X' type frame without side rails would not adequately protect occupants during a side impact collision, and that the defendant manufacturer had created an unreasonable risk of serious injury. The trial court, applying Indiana law, dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, and the dismissal was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the...

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