Thursday, June 24, 2010
Drive@death?: Florida Appellate Court Finds Trial Court Improperly Applied Doctrine Of Substantial Similarity In Trial Against Mitsubishi
Generally, the doctrine of substantial similarity applies in a products liability claim when a party, most often a plaintiff, attempts to introduce evidence of prior accidents or recreates the accident involving the defendant's product, in order to show notice of defect, magnitude of the danger involved, the defendant's ability to correct a known defect, or the lack of safety for intended uses.
The personal representative of the estate of a decedent sues Mitsubishi, claiming that design defects in the seat belt, seatback, and side window glass of the decedent's Mitsubishi Native caused him to be partially ejected from the vehicle during an accident, causing his death. In response, Mitsubishi seeks to introduce evidence of “301 testing” to show that a variety of seats in different vehicles tested by NHTSA perform in a similar manner to the seat in the Nativa. Should the admissibility of the evidence of the 301 testing depend on the doctrine of substantial similarity? According to the trial court, the answer is "yes." According to the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District, in its recent opinion in Mitsubishi Motor Corp. v. Laliberte, 2010 WL 2382562 (Fla.App. 4 Dist. 2010), the answer is "no."The facts in Laliberte were as stated above. According to the trial court, the evidence of the 301 testing
contained different crash scenarios, different seats, and different forces compared to those present in the accident. The court went on to conclude that these differences made the evidence less probative or relevant. Therefore, the court concluded that admission of such evidence would be highly prejudicial. Essentially, the trial court was applying the doctrine of substantial similarity to determine whether to admit Mitsubishi's evidence.
On Mitsubishi's ensuing appeal, the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District, noted that Mitsubishi sought to admit the evidence of the 301 testing as demonstrative evidence to supplement the testimony of its expert witnesses. And, according to these experts,
(1) even if Mitsubishi had used the other seat belt systems suggested by the plaintiff's experts, Laliberte still could have been ejected from the vehicle and suffered the same injuries; (2) the EM loop design provided safety features not present in the other designs; (3) with respect to the design of the Nativa's passenger seat, the plaintiff's alternative seat design posed greater dangers to the occupant; and (4) the seat conformed to industry custom and standards.
Therefore, according to the court, "the purpose of the evidence was not to replicate the accident to prove that the seat belt or seatback operated in a manner different than that proposed by the plaintiff's expert. Rather the evidence supported Mitsubishi's otherwise valid defenses to the plaintiff's defective product claims." Thus, the appellate court held that
the trial court applied the wrong test. It should not have applied the doctrine of substantial similarity to evidence that was not intended to recreate the accident. We hold that the application of the doctrine of substantial similarity to test the relevancy of Mitsubishi's demonstrative evidence was an abuse of discretion because the evidence was relevant to the purpose for which it was tendered-to prove Mitsubishi's defenses.
Moreover, the court found that
because Mitsubishi's defenses necessarily required expert opinion testimony. When the trial court excluded Mitsubishi's demonstrative evidence, its expert's opinions were barren and unsubstantiated. Moreover, during closing argument, the plaintiff's counsel capitalized on the error by arguing that the testing performed by Mitsubishi's expert was “really irrelevant,” that Mitsubishi's expert “never tested a seat in a rollover condition.” Mitsubishi argues, and we agree, that in the context of an expert opinion, the force and effect of the opinion being proffered is greatly enhanced when supported by studies and data upon which the opinion is based.
The appellate court thus reversed the jury's finding that the vehicle's seat belt design was defective and a legal cause of Laliberte's injuries, resulting in his death.