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AKE v. GMC

October 21, 1996

LAURIE A. AKE, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Kenneth C. Ake, Plaintiff,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS CORP., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LARIMER

 INTRODUCTION

 Plaintiff, Laurie A. Ake, individually and as administratrix of the estate of Kenneth C. Ake, commenced this products liability action against defendant General Motors Corporation ("GM"). Plaintiff sought to recover damages in connection with the death of Kenneth Ake on September 24, 1993. On that date, Kenneth Ake, while driving his 1983 Chevrolet C-20 pickup truck, accidentally struck a tree in an apple orchard in Ontario County, New York. The truck caught fire, and Kenneth Ake died in the fire.

 The amended complaint alleges that the design of the truck was defective. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the location of the fuel tank outside the vehicle's frame rails caused the tank to rupture when Kenneth Ake's truck hit the tree. The complaint alleges that this allowed fuel to escape, feeding the fire that killed Kenneth Ake. The amended complaint asserts causes of action for strict liability for defective design, strict liability for failure to warn, and a claim for punitive damages.

 Numerous in limine motions were filed by the parties prior to the scheduled trial date. On two occasions, I advised the parties of my rulings on the motions so that they could prepare for trial consistent with those rulings. I had not, however, set forth, either orally or in writing, the basis for my rulings on the motions. This Decision and Order, then, briefly sets forth the basis for my rulings on the motions in limine. *fn1"

 I. PLAINTIFF'S MOTIONS

 A. Motions to Preclude Evidence of Defendant's Compliance with Federal Safety Standards and to Preclude Evidence of Industry Practice

 Plaintiff moved to exclude evidence that GM's C/K Series truck, which included the decedent's truck, complied with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 301, which deals with frontal barrier crash standards, including standards for fuel spillage caused by such a crash. Plaintiff also seeks to exclude evidence of industry practice relating to fuel system design at the time that decedent's truck was manufactured.

 Both motions are denied. It is well established in New York that "compliance with a statute may constitute some evidence of due care ...," though it does not preclude a finding that the product was defective. Lugo v. Lopez v. LJN Toys, Inc., 146 A.D.2d 168, 171, 539 N.Y.S.2d 922 (1st Dep't 1989), aff'd, 75 N.Y.2d 850, 552 N.Y.S.2d 914, 552 N.E.2d 162 (1990); Stone v. Sterling Drug Co., 111 A.D.2d 1017, 1019, 490 N.Y.S.2d 468 (3rd Dep't 1985). Compliance with a regulation can also be introduced as some evidence of due care. Feiner v. Calvin Klein, Ltd., 157 A.D.2d 501, 549 N.Y.S.2d 692, 693 (1st Dep't 1990) (compliance with Federal fabric flammability regulations prescribed under the Federal Flammable Fabrics Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1191 et seq., and Commercial Standard 191-53 is some evidence of due care in case based on negligence, breach of warranty, and strict products liability; see also New York Pattern Jury Instructions Supp. 2:141 at 309 (stating that in both negligence and strict liability design defect cases, jury should be charged that compliance with a federal safety standard constitutes some evidence of due care).

 Likewise, evidence that a manufacturer's design was consistent with prevailing practices in the industry has also been admitted as some evidence that the design was not defective. See, e.g., Cramer v. Kuhns, 213 A.D.2d 131, 137, 630 N.Y.S.2d 128 (3d Dep't) (trial court erred in excluding evidence that very few other manufacturer's motorcycles employed a certain safety feature that plaintiff alleged defendant should have incorporated into its design), appeal dismissed, 87 N.Y.2d 860, 639 N.Y.S.2d 312, 662 N.E.2d 793 (1995).

 Although some of these cited cases involve negligence claims, these principles are nonetheless applicable to plaintiff's strict liability claims, since in a design defect case the two theories of liability are virtually identical.

 
The reality is that the risk/utility balancing test [employed in strict liability cases] is a "negligence-inspired" approach, since it invites the parties to adduce proof about the manufacturer's choices and ultimately requires the fact finder to make "a judgment about [the manufacturer's] judgment" ... As one commentator observed, "in general, ... the strict liability concept of 'defective design' [is] functionally synonymous with the earlier negligence concept of unreasonable designing."

 Denny v. Ford Motor Co. 87 N.Y.2d 248, 258, 639 N.Y.S.2d 250, 662 N.E.2d 730 (1995) (quoting Schwartz, New Products, Old Products, Evolving Law, Retroactive Law, 58 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 796, 803).

 B. Motion to Preclude Evidence of the Overall Safety of C/K Series Trucks and Evidence of the Number of Accident-Free Miles Driven by such Trucks

 Plaintiff moved to preclude evidence that decedent's truck was safely designed "overall," and to preclude evidence of the number of C/K trucks on the road that have not had an accident like the one in which Kenneth Ake died.

 This motion is granted in part and denied in part. Deciding whether a product is defectively designed requires weighing its dangers against its overall advantages. Denny, 639 N.Y.S.2d at 256. Thus, the fuel system cannot be considered in isolation, but in the context of the overall design of the truck.

 In addition, "the lack of evidence of prior accidents is admissible to negate negligence because continued use over a long period of time without incident may indicate that the condition has been proven to be adequate or safe." Cassar v. Central Hudson Gas & Electric, 134 A.D.2d 672, 674, 521 N.Y.S.2d 337 (3rd Dep't 1987). A lack of evidence of prior accidents is never conclusive proof that the defendant exercised due care, but it is a factor that the fact-finder could consider. See Orlick v. Granit Hotel & Country Club, 30 N.Y.2d 246, 250, 331 N.Y.S.2d 651, 282 N.E.2d 610 (1972). Therefore, a "large number of cases recognize that lack of other accidents may be admissible to show (1) absence of the defect or condition alleged, (2) the lack of a causal relationship between the injury and the defect or condition charged, (3) the nonexistence of an unduly dangerous situation, or (4) want of knowledge (or of grounds to realize) the danger." Edward W. Cleary, et al., McCormick on Evidence, § 200, p. 591 (3d ed. 1984) (citing cases).

 Nevertheless, the defect alleged here is not that the design of the truck made it likely to crash, but that a fuel-fed fire was likely to occur in the event that it did crash. Therefore, evidence of its "overall" safety or the number of accidents in which these trucks were involved, is too tangential to the defect alleged here, and should be excluded under Rule 403 on the ground that it would be confusing to the jury, a waste of time, and of minimal relevance.

 C. Motion to Preclude Evidence that Decedent Was not Wearing a Seat Belt

 Plaintiff contends that Kenneth Ake's failure to wear a seat belt was not relevant to the issues in this case because it was not a causative factor in his death from the fire. Plaintiff argues that the only issue here was whether the truck was defectively designed.

 This motion is denied. Section 1411 of New York Civil Practice Law and Rules ("C.P.L.R.") expressly provides that damages in a wrongful death case are to be reduced "in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the ... decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages." While decedent's failure to wear a seat belt may not have caused the fire, it may have caused some of his injuries in the accident. This evidence would therefore be relevant to plaintiff's claim for damages for decedent's conscious pain and suffering. Furthermore, evidence of a vehicle occupant's failure to wear a seat belt has been held admissible under § 1411 by several New York courts. See, e.g., Curry v. Moser, 89 A.D.2d 1, 454 N.Y.S.2d 311 (2d Dep't 1982); Karczmit v. State, 155 Misc. 2d 486, 588 N.Y.S.2d 963 (Ct. Cl. 1992); Costanza v. City of New York, 147 Misc. 2d 94, 553 N.Y.S.2d 616 (Civ. Ct. City of NY 1990); Fernandez v. Vukosa, 108 Misc. 2d 48, 436 N.Y.S.2d 919 (Civ. Ct. City of NY 1980).

 In addition, defendant stated that its expert's reconstruction of the accident rested in part on his contention that an unbelted driver interacts differently with the steering wheel than a belted driver. Therefore, the evidence relates not just to damages, but to how the accident occurred.

 D. Motion to Preclude Evidence of Decedent's Intoxication

 Plaintiff moved to exclude any evidence that plaintiff had been drinking or that he was intoxicated at the time of the accident. Defendant was prepared to offer evidence that on the date of the accident, Kenneth Ake left a bar where he had been drinking for some time, struck a parked car, and sped away from the scene. While being pursued by the driver of the other car, he went through a T-shaped intersection into the orchard where he crashed. There was also evidence that his blood alcohol level was over the legal limit.

 This motion is denied. As stated, C.P.L.R. § 1411 allows the jury to consider the decedent's "culpable conduct" in apportioning fault. Driving while intoxicated could obviously be found to be culpable conduct in a case of this nature.

 In response to this motion, plaintiff stated that she would concede that decedent caused the accident, and that this would suffice under C.P.L.R. § 1411. I disagree. Without knowing what led up to the accident, the jury would have had no basis for assessing decedent's culpable conduct and his alleged misuse of the product. For example, the jury's apportionment of fault might have been much different if the accident was caused by decedent's falling asleep at the wheel instead of by his driving while intoxicated. Without such evidence, the jury would be left to speculate about why the accident occurred; they might even wonder if some other defect in the vehicle, such as faulty brakes, caused the crash.

 In addition, some of the facts of the accident, such as the speed of decedent's vehicle, and whether he applied his brakes before the crash, were disputed. Evidence of decedent's intoxication would be relevant to those issues as well. Evidence that decedent was intoxicated might make the jury more likely to believe that he was traveling at an excessive speed and that he did not use his brakes. See Bramlette v. Hyundai Motor Co., 1992 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13080, No. 91 C 3635, 1992 WL 213956 *3 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 28, 1992) (since evidence in product liability case that driver who struck decedent's car was intoxicated might increase the likelihood that jurors would believe the manufacturer's contention that the fire that killed decedent resulted from a crash at exceptionally high speed, the evidence is relevant and admissible).

 II. Defendant's Motions

 A. Motion to Preclude Reference to GM's Financial ...


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