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Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
September 2, 1997
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Status of Injury and Crashworthiness Consumer Information
How Effective in Preventing Death and Injury Are Safety Belts and Air Bags?
Nissan Liable When Defective Restraint System Contributed to Severity of Plaintiff's Injuries
Compliance with Federal Standards Did Not Relieve Child Restraint Manufacturer from Liability under Common Law

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Nissan Liable When Defective Restraint System Contributed to Severity of Plaintiff's Injuries

Evidence suggested that a Louisiana motorist fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle and, subsequently, ran off the road. The motorist sustained severe injuries to his ankles as a result of the crash. He sued Nissan Motor Corporation (Nissan), claiming his injuries would have been minor had Nissan's restraint system not been defective. A jury trial in the Sixteenth Judicial District Court, Parish of St. Martin found in favor of the plaintiff. The jury concluded the restraint system in the plaintiff's Nissan was defective; however, they also found the motorist 84 percent at fault, since his falling asleep caused the crash. The plaintiff and the defendant appealed.

The Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Third Circuit, amended the assignment of fault, reasoning that Nissan's "fault should have been assessed in relation to injury sustained, rather than cause of accident." Therefore, the appellate court amended the assignment of fault to 25 percent for the plaintiff. Reversing a portion of the court costs assigned to the defendant, the appeals court affirmed the remainder of the verdict.

THE CRASH

On July 22, 1989 in his home in Grand Marais, Louisiana, John Boutte was awake at 5:00 a.m. to report to work at 7:00 a.m. Working an eight-hour day, he returned home, ate, showered, and went to pick up his girlfriend at her home in Lafayette. Boutte had one alcoholic drink at his girlfriend's and two more at the party the couple went to in New Iberia. Returning his girlfriend to her home, Boutte began the trip back to Grand Marais.

At 2:10 a.m. on July 23 (when Boutte had been awake for 21 hours), Boutte's 1987 Nissan Maxima ran off Highway 90. In a one-vehicle crash, Boutte's Nissan "travelled through the median, crashed over the concrete retaining wall of a culvert in the median knocking out a large piece of the wall, and stopped approximately 210 feet from the point where it left the roadway." The Nissan sustained damage to the undercarriage from going over the retaining wall. After Boutte managed to extricate himself, flames engulfed the vehicle. As a result of the crash, Boutte suffered severe injuries to his ankles.

TRIAL COURT DECISION

In his original suit against Nissan, Boutte alleged faulty brakes or steering caused the Maxima to run off the road. Amending his petition, he claimed a defect in the vehicle's restraint system. The vehicle's manufacturer responded that no defects existed in Boutte's Nissan and argued that the vehicle left the road because Boutte fell asleep. Moreover, Nissan contended that the plaintiff's ankle injuries were not a result of any defect in the restraint system.

A jury trial found the Maxima's restraint system defective and awarded Boutte $450,000 in damages. However, the jury felt Boutte was 84 percent at fault in causing the crash and, therefore, he would receive only 16 percent of the award. The jury assigned all court costs to Nissan.

APPELLATE COURT DECISION

Both Nissan and Boutte appealed. Nissan objected to the jury's finding that the restraint system was defective and to being assessed 100 percent of the court costs. Boutte objected to the distribution of fault and to what he considered an inadequate damage award. The court discussed the issues in five categories: expert testimony, jury charge, fault, damages, and costs.

Expert Testimony

In arguing error in the jury's conclusion that the restraint system in the Maxima was defective, Nissan contended the plaintiff provided no competent expert testimony (1) to prove a defect existed, (2) to show that his injuries were made worse by any alleged defect, or (3) to establish that an alternate design was available that would have lessened or prevented Boutte's injuries. The appellate court examined the qualifications and testimony of one of the plaintiff's expert witness.

The court first approached the issue of qualifying a witness to give expert testimony. This court observed that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (---- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993)) had relaxed the rules on expert testimony regarding "'the usual requirement of first-hand knowledge' to ensure reliability on the part of the witness." According to Daubert, "this relaxation is justified so long as 'the expert's opinion (has) reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of his discipline.'"

The gatekeeping decision as to the reliability and relevance of an expert's testimony and, therefore, whether than testimony should be admitted falls to the trial court. The trial judge must not admit:

expert testimony based on mere conjecture or speculation; or which may be misleading to lay jurors unschooled in the scientific field advanced; or which potentials [sic] for unfair prejudice outweighs its probative value.

The trial court allowed the testimony of Boutte's expert in mechanical engineering, William H. Muzzy III, who had knowledge of injury mechanics, occupant motion, and vehicle restraint systems. Nissan contended Muzzy's opinions were speculative, because the expert "never designed a motorized seat belt system or tested one nor did he perform any tests to support his opinions." This court pointed out, however, that Muzzy was educated as a mechanical engineer, worked in testing the effects of deceleration and acceleration on the human body for the Naval Biodynamics Laboratories, and had designed restraint systems for various types of crashes. Declining to conclude the trial judge erred in evaluating Muzzy's qualifications and allowing his evidence, the appellate court accepted the decision to admit the expert's evidence. Moreover, Nissan was not prevented from challenging Muzzy's testimony or cross-examining the witness and, therefore, had opportunity in court to contest his qualifications.

Muzzy testified that a lap belt should be anchored so that it remains on the motorist's pelvis during a crash. He felt the lap belt anchor point in the Nissan was positioned in such a way that "Boutte's legs slid forward during the accident and became entrapped by the knee bolsters located on the lower portion of the dashboard." In his opinion, this defective design increased the severity of Boutte's ankle injuries, and an available General Motors alternative design could have reduced or prevented the injuries. Nissan's expert, a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, gave his opinion that it was the positioning of Boutte's feet at the time of the crash that determined the severity of his injuries, and the alleged defect in the restraint system was not a cause in fact of the injuries.

The court decided the jury could reasonably have concluded from this expert testimony that the Nissan's restraint system was defective and contributed to the severity of Boutte's injuries. Consequently, the court denied Nissan's appeal to set aside the jury's finding on this issue.

Jury Charge

Claiming that the trial court neglected to include the word "and" to join the two parts of the jury's instructions on product liability, Nissan claimed the jury was wrongly led to believe the plaintiff needed only to satisfy one of the elements. The jury charge in question read:

A product is unreasonably dangerous in design if, at the time the product left its manufacturer's control:

  1. There existed an alternative design for the product that was capable of preventing the claimant's damage; and
  2. The likelihood that the product's design would cause the claimant's damage and the gravity of that damage outweighed the burden on the manufacturer of adopting such alternative design and the adverse effect, if any, of such alternative design on the utility of the product . . . (LSA-R.S. 9:2800.56)

The court felt these jury instructions were adequate to allow the jury to identify the issues of the case and understand the principles of law to apply to those issues. Therefore, these instructions were deemed to represent fairly the burden of proof incumbent on Boutte and the defenses available to Nissan.

Fault

Contending that his injuries would not have been severe if not for Nissan's defective restraint system, Boutte appealed his being assigned 84 percent of fault for the crash.

Reviewing testimony on the cause of the crash, the court noted Boutte told people who helped him after the crash that he thought a tire had blown out. The trooper who investigated the crash, however, saw no evidence of a blowout or of failed brakes or steering. He cited as the only cause of the crash that the driver "apparently fell asleep." Given the evidence, the jury concluded that Boutte caused the crash. The jury also considered the evidence and found that the design of the Maxima's restraint system was defective and that the defect increased the severity of Boutte's injuries.

The court noted that Boutte's fault in causing the crash did not release Nissan from its liability for the increased injury resulting from its defective restraint system. According to the court:

Once the jury found the vehicle's restraint system was defective in design and this defect contributed to the injury Boutte sustained, Nissan's fault should have been assessed in relation to the injury sustained by Boutte rather than the cause of the accident.

Referring to Campbell v. Department of Transp. & Dev. (94-1052 (La. 1/17/95); 648 So.2d 898), the appellate court chose to reallocate fault and assigned 75 percent responsibility for the plaintiff's injuries to Nissan, reducing Boutte's liability to 25 percent.

Damages

In his appeal, the plaintiff reviewed his damage claim amounts for past medical expenses, future medical expenses, lost past earnings, future past earnings, and pain and suffering. He argued the award amount was inadequate to cover these expenses. The jury's lump sum award of $450,000 did not specify the amount awarded for any particular item, and the court felt it was reasonable to assume the jury rejected some assumptions made by the economist who estimated Boutte's future lost wages due to the crash injuries. Emphasizing that the jury has "much discretion" in assessing damages and determining award amounts and that the amounts were not out of line with damages awarded in similar cases, the appeals court chose to leave the award undisturbed.

Costs

Both Boutte and Nissan contested the trial court's assessment of court costs. The plaintiff felt the amount assessed was insufficient; the defendant contested a portion of the costs and fact that 100 percent of those costs were assigned to Nissan.

The trial court assessed the defendant a lesser amount in court costs than the plaintiff had requested, claiming that "the expert fees Boutte submitted were inflated." The appellate court confirmed the amount assessed, adding that the court was not required to set the amount of expert fee to be recovered at the level charged by the expert witness.

Nissan pointed out that Boutte claimed costs for three pretrial depositions that were not used during the trial. The appellate court agreed that "[t]he trial judge may not award the cost for depositions not 'used on the trial.'" Therefore, the trial court's decision was reversed for those deposition fees and the amount of the award for court costs reduced accordingly.

Finally, Nissan argued that it should not be responsible for 100 percent of the court costs when the jury found it only 16 percent at fault. Davis v. State, DOTD (94-308 (La.App. 3 Cir. 12/7/94); 647, So.2d 552, writ denied, 95-34 (La. 1/27/95); 649 So.2d 382) established the court's "broad discretion" in assigning court costs, and this court declined to find an abuse of discretion in the trial courts assessment of costs. Moreover, the appellate court felt its decision to assign 75 percent of fault to Nissan reinforced the appropriateness of their being responsible for court costs.

In conclusion, the appeals court amended the assignment of fault, reversed the court costs for depositions not used in trial, and affirmed the trial court's decisions in all other aspects of the case.

[For further reference, see Boutte v. Nissan Motor Corp. (La.App. 3 Cir. 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 663 Southern Reporter, 2d Series, 154.]

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.


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