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June 24, 2006

Tennessee Court of Appeals Affirms $7 Million Damages Award in Paralpegia Case

In Potter v. Ford Motor Co., 2006 WL 1698971 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 21, 2006), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court judgment of $10 million for the plaintiff in a products liability case arising out of the crash of a 1997 Ford Escort in which the plaintiff was rendered a paraplegic. The jury found the plaintiff to be 30% at fault in the accident and Ford 70% at fault. The accident occurred when the plaintiff lost control of her car while driving at a moderate speed on a rain-slick road. The car spun around and crashed into a tree. The plaintiff’s seat back collapsed into the rear seat and she submarined into the seat, suffering the spinal cord injuries that resulted in paraplegia. Under the Tennessee Products Liability Act, Tenn. Code. Ann. § 29-28-101 (a), a plaintiff is required to prove that the product in question is "in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous" when it left the manufacturer’s or seller’s control. In her amended complaint the plaintiff abandoned her theory that the car was "unreasonably dangerous," alleging instead that the car "was defective when put to a use reasonably anticipated in that [t]he seat was designed and manufactured of inadequate strength to prevent its collapse in a foreseeable condition." Section 29-28-101 (b) of the Act provides that in deciding whether a product is in a defective condition, "the state of scientific and technological knowledge available to the manufacturer or seller at the time the product was placed on the market, rather than at the time of injury, is applicable," and that "[c]onsideration is given also to the customary designs, methods, standards and techniques of manufacturing, inspecting and testing by other manufacturers or sellers of similar products." Ford argued on appeal that to prove a prima facie case, the plaintiff is required to prove "the availability of a technologically feasible and practical alternative design that would have reduced or prevented the plaintiff’s harm," citing Martin v. Michelin North America, Inc., 92 F. Supp. 2d 745, 753, (E.D. Tenn. 2000), and that the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony did not prove a defect as a matter of law because his data showed a slightly increased risk of injury for persons in a certain weight range in lower speed collisions. The court of appeals acknowledged that Martin made the feasible alternative design statement and that the court in Martin relied on Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 2, comment f, but the court of appeals noted that no subsequent Tennessee case has taken that position. The court concluded that the trial court was correct in refusing to grant Ford’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and that there was "abundant material evidence supporting" the jury’s finding of defectiveness.

Ford also argued that it was error to refuse its requested instruction on intervening cause. Ford argued that the plaintiff’s own admittedly negligent conduct in losing control of her car was an intervening, superseding cause because of the unusual nature of the accident in which "a seriously overweight plaintiff [was] driving n the rain on badly worn tires, [lost] control of the car and collided] backwards into a tree at roughly 30 miles per hour." The court of appeals rejected the argument, in part because of the inapplicability of the superseding cause doctrine in a case involving a single plaintiff and defendant, in part because the fact that the jury was fully instructed on foreseeability and proximate cause and the jury rejected Ford’s position, and in part because the comparative fault finding subsumed the superseding cause issue.

MKS

June 24, 2006 | Permalink

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