Wolfe v. Ford Motor Co.

CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts
Citation376 N.E.2d 143,6 Mass.App.Ct. 346
Parties, 100 A.L.R.3d 731, 24 UCC Rep.Serv. 94 Jocelyn Wujcik WOLFE et al. v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al.
Decision Date17 May 1978

Charles F. Barrett, Milton (Daniel C. Sacco, Boston, with him), for Ford Motor Co.

Arthur J. McLaughlin, Waltham, for Harold R. Donahue.

Joseph M. Cohen, Boston (Leonard R. Sweet, Boston, with him), for plaintiffs.

Before HALE, C. J., and GOODMAN and GRANT, JJ.

GOODMAN, Justice.

This case arises out of an accident which took place on the Trans Canada Highway 1 on April 18, 1970. The plaintiffs, Alexis McLaughlin, her daughter Mary Ann McLaughlin, and her niece Jocelyn Wujcik Wolfe, were travelling in a Ford truck on which a camper was mounted. Also present in the vehicle were Margaret Wujcik, sister of Alexis McLaughlin, and Catherine McDonald. 2 While they were travelling at about forty-five miles per hour, there was a blowout in the left rear tire; the truck went out of control and rolled over, and the camper became completely detached from the body of the truck. Wolfe, who was riding in the camper at the time, was seriously injured; the other plaintiffs sustained lesser injuries. The defendants in the case are Ford Motor Company (Ford), manufacturer of the truck, and Harold R. Donahue (doing business as Donahue Mobile Homes), the dealer who assembled the truck and camper unit and sold it to James McLaughlin, the husband of Alexis McLaughlin.

The original declaration, filed April 3, 1972, alleged injuries "by reason of the negligence of the defendant (Ford) . . . in the manufacture of said motor vehicle and/ or the equipment and/or apparatus connected therewith . . . ." 3 The declaration also alleged in separate counts a breach of warranty by Donahue.

On June 2, 1975, at the beginning of the trial, the plaintiffs moved to amend their complaint (see Mass.R.Civ.P. 1A(3), 365 Mass. 731 (1974)) to allege in the counts against Ford injuries "by reason of the negligence of the defendant . . . in the manufacture of said motor vehicle and/or the equipment and/or apparatus connected therewith and/or in its instructions or in its failure to give instructions as to said vehicle related to gross vehicle weight and gross vehicle weight requirements." (The amendment added the italicized portions.) The amendment was allowed over Ford's objection. 4

The case was submitted to the jury with interrogatories (Mass.R.Civ.P. 49(b), 365 Mass. 813 (1974)); motions by the defendants for directed verdicts were denied. The jury found that, (a) there was no defect in the left rear wheel, (b) the accident was caused by "a combination of the overloading in excess of the gross vehicle weight and the underinflation of the left rear tire of the vehicle" 5, (c) Ford had not taken reasonable measures to make known "the risks and dangers with respect to what could occur as a result of underinflation of tires or the imposition of weight in excess of the gross maximum weight of the vehicle," (d) this failure was the proximate cause of the accident, (e) the plaintiffs were not contributorily negligent, and (f) Donahue had breached his warrant in the sale of the truck and camper unit. Verdicts were returned for all the plaintiffs against both defendants, who appealed from the resulting judgments.


It is now accepted by both Ford and the plaintiffs that the jury could have found, as they did, that the blowout was caused by a combination of overloading the vehicle and underinflation of the left rear tire. Rather, Ford disputes the jury's finding that it was negligent in failing to provide an adequate warning of the danger that might arise from these conditions. It argues that, as a matter of law, adequate warnings were provided by the operator's manual furnished with the vehicle and the "rating plate" affixed to the door of the vehicle which gave (as described in the manual) the "recommended maximum gross vehicle weight rating." We disagree.

The duty of the manufacturer to warn of the dangers in the use of his product is well established; it is applicable to hazards involved in the use of properly designed products by users to whom the danger would not be apparent. Farley v. Edward E. Tower Co., 271 Mass. 230, 233-234, 237, 171 N.E. 639 (1930). Mealey v. Super Curline Hair Wave Corp., 342 Mass. 303, 305, 173 N.E.2d 84 (1961). H. P. Hood & Sons v. Ford Motor Co., 369 Mass. ---, --- - --- a, 345 N.E.2d 683 (1976). Schaeffer v. General Motors Corp., --- Mass. ---, --- - --- b, 360 N.E.2d 1062 (1977). Fegan v. Lynn Ladder Co., 3 Mass.App. ---, --- - --- c, 322 N.E.2d 783 (1975). See Bulpett v. Dodge Associates, Inc., --- Mass.App. ---, --- - --- d, 365 N.E.2d 1248 (1977). Swartz & Swartz, Products Liability in Massachusetts, 60 Mass.L.Q. 169, 174-177 (1975). Prosser, Torts § 96 at 646-647 (4th ed. 1971). Restatement (Second) of Torts § 388 (1965). 1 Frumer & Friedman, Products Liability § 8.01 (1978). "If the manufacturer owes a duty to use due care in making his products, he owes also the companion duty to warn of the latent limitations of even a perfectly made article, the use of which, however, is dangerous if the user is ignorant of those limitations and the manufacturer has no reason to believe that he will recognize the danger." Tomao v. A. P. DeSanno & Son, 209 F.2d 544, 546 (3d Cir. 1954) (a diversity case applying Massachusetts law and discussing Carter v. Yardley & Co., 319 Mass. 92, 64 N.E.2d 693 (1946)). The duty to warn of dangers is not necessarily discharged by mere directions for use. Seibel v. Symons Corp., 221 N.W.2d 50, 57 (N.D.1974). Hiigel v. General Motors Corp., Colo., 544 P.2d 983, 988 (1976). Bituminous Cas. Corp. v. Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 518 S.W.2d 868, 873 (Tex.Civ.App.1974). Williams v. Brown Mfg. Co., 93 Ill.App.2d 334, 361-362, 236 N.E.2d 125 (1968), rev'd on other grounds, 45 Ill.2d 418, 261 N.E.2d 305 (1970). Swartz & Swartz, Products Liability in Massachusetts, 60 Mass.L.Q. at 176. 1 Frumer & Friedman, Products Liability § 8.05(1). Dillard & Hart, Products Liability: Directions for Use and the Duty to Warn, 41 Va.L.Rev. 145, 147 (1955). Further, the forcefulness of the warning must be commensurate with the danger involved. Post v. American Cleaning Equip. Corp., 437 S.W.2d 516, 520-521 (Ky.App.1969). Bituminous Cas. Corp. v. Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 518 S.W.2d at 873. 1 Frumer & Friedman, Products Liability § 8.05(3).

A jury question was presented whether the manual and the rating plate were sufficient to bring home the danger of a serious accident, which might result from a blowout, to the ordinary buyer of the truck who might use it with a camper. Mealey v. Super Curline Hair Wave Corp., 342 Mass. 303 at 305, 173 N.E.2d 84. H. P. Hood & Sons v. Ford Motor Co., 369 Mass. at --- e, 345 N.E.2d 683. The jury's finding that there was no adequate warning was well warranted. The recommended gross vehicle weight was opaque even as a direction with respect to the load which the truck could carry without overloading; nowhere was the weight of the vehicle given so that the user could subtract that figure from the maximum gross vehicle weight rating of seven thousand five hundred pounds (subtracting also in this case the weight of added optional equipment) to derive the weight which could safely be loaded on the truck. Moreover, there is an obvious likelihood of overloading a camper with equipment and passengers by users who have had little or no experience in handling trucks, and this may require a more pointed warning than might otherwise be necessary. Nor was overloading presented as a danger to the safety of the passengers in the manual or elsewhere. Similarly, the "Recommended Inflation Pressures" given in the manual were not presented as safety measures, the disregard of which, when coupled with overloading, could result in a serious accident. 6

Upon examination of the references in the manual to which Ford points, the jury could well have found that these references to the "Recommended tire pressures" and "Tire Pressures" like, e.g., the accompanying references to "Maintenance recommendations" and "Cooling Systems," respectively were designed to give information as to the most efficient use rather than alert the user to potential hazards. We find unpersuasive the emphasis placed by Ford on the statement under the heading "Tires and Tire Care": "For reliable vehicle control always maintain the recommended difference between front and rear tires." The jury could well have found that this suggestion, if relevant at all, was too oblique a reference and that a more explicit warning was required. 7 Also, the jury might well have taken into consideration that this truck was built as a "camper special" (so designated in the manual) to be used by consumers having no experience with trucks.

Ford's contention, phrased in terms of proximate cause, that the plaintiffs did not introduce any evidence that an adequate warning would have reached them, is unpersuasive. An adequate warning is by definition one that would in the ordinary course have come to the user's attention. The failure to give such a warning therefore permits the inference that it would have alerted the user to the danger and forestalled the accident. The jury were free to draw such an inference absent some negating evidence binding on the plaintiffs. The burden was on the defendants to come forward with evidence tending to rebut such an inference; the plaintiffs were not required to refute a hypothesis which was never raised. "The very reason that the law imposes a duty to give notice in a particular case is the assumption that, because of the danger not commonly known to users, 'a warning is needed.' . . . That the plaintiff fell outside the common class should be the defendant's burden, not the plaintiff's." Hubbard-Hall Chem. Co. v. Silverman, 340 F.2d 402, 406 (1st Cir. 1965) (Aldrich, C. J.,...

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