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GUILD v. GENERAL MOTORS CORP.

June 1, 1999

CAROL S. GUILD AND JOHN GUILD, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Feldman, United States Magistrate Judge.

  DECISION AND ORDER

Factual Background

In this products liability action, plaintiff Carol Guild (hereinafter Guild) claims that her 1987 Cutlass, manufactured by defendant General Motors, (hereinafter GM) was "uncrashworthy" in that it was equipped with a defective and unsafe seat belt system. Specifically, Guild alleges that the seat belt system utilized in her automobile was defective, dangerous and unsafe because in certain crash settings inertial forces generated during a collision will cause the seat belt buckle to release and unlatch. Guild claims that on May 26, 1993, while properly restrained in her seat belt, the Cutlass she was driving collided with another automobile. According to Guild, during the collision her seat belt unlatched causing her to sustain serious injuries which were enhanced by the failure of the seat belt system to properly operate. GM denies the existence of any defect in the seat belt. GM also contends that Guild was not wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident.

Decision

Presently before the Court are various pretrial motions in limine filed by the parties in anticipation of trial. A lengthy hearing was held by this Court on May 28, 1999. Based on the arguments and detailed submissions made by the parties, the Court makes the following pretrial rulings.

1. Admissibility of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) Investigation: In 1992, in response to a petition submitted by the Institute for Injury Reduction (IIR), NHTSA conducted an extensive investigation into the phenomena of inertial release of "side release" seat belt buckles. As part of their investigation, NHTSA reviewed crash test data, analyzed real world accident data, performed full scale crash and other testing of buckles, requested information from motor vehicle and safety belt manufacturers, and evaluated consumer complaints alleging spontaneous buckle release. The NHTSA report concluded that their "comprehensive review of all available information" failed to "provide any evidence that there is a safety problem associated with inertial unlatching of safety belts." GM seeks to introduce a certified copy of the NHTSA as evidence of non-defect.

The issue of inertial release of seat belts is obviously a critical issue in this litigation. The NHTSA report is clearly relevant to this issue. See Fed. R.Evid. 401 (relevant evidence is "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence"). Although hearsay, the NHTSA Report is admissible as a public record pursuant to Fed.R.Evid. 803(8). It is well settled that administrative reports and investigations are admissible pursuant to Rule 803(8). The reliability of the public agencies conducting the investigations and their lack of motive to conduct biased inquiries support their admission into evidence. See Livingston v. Isuzu Motors, Ltd., 910 F. Supp. 1473, 1497 (D.Mont. 1995) (NHTSA investigation into vehicle roll-overs admissible under Rule 803(8) in product liability action). The fact that the NHTSA report contains conclusions in addition to factual findings does not preclude admission so long as the report's conclusions are factually based and thus reliable. Beech Aircraft v. Rainey, 488 U.S. 153, 109 S.Ct. 439, 102 L.Ed.2d 445 (1988). See generally Grossman and Shapiro, The Admission of Government Fact Findings Under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8)(C): Limiting the Dangers of Unreliable Hearsay, 38 U.Kan.L.Rev. 767 (1990); Musselman-Brown, Admitting Opinions and Conclusions in Evaluative Reports: The Trustworthiness Inquiry-Beech AirCraft Corp. v. Rainey, 64 Wn. L.Rev. 975 (1989).

Citing Bright v. Firestone Tire and Rubber, 756 F.2d 19, 22 (6th Cir. 1984) and Fowler v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, 92 F.R.D. 1 (N.D.Miss. 1980), plaintiff worries that admission of the NHTSA report will cause her unfair prejudice, "because the jury may be unduly influenced by the official character of the report and afford it greater weight than it deserves." See April 28, 1999 Affirmation of Norman Andrew Palmiere, at page 38. However, both Bright and Fowler predate the Supreme Court's analysis of Rule 803(8) in Beech Aircraft v. Rainey. Moreover, as the Supreme Court stated in Rainey: "[O]f course it goes without saying that the admission of a report containing `conclusions' is subject to the ultimate safeguard — the opponent's right to present evidence tending to contradict or diminish the weight of those conclusions." Beech Aircraft v. Rainey, 488 U.S. at 168, 109 S.Ct. 439, 102 L.Ed.2d 445. Finally, this Court will consider, if requested, giving an instruction to the jury similar to the instruction given in Cohen v. General Motors Corp., 534 F. Supp. 509, 512 n. 3 (W.D.Mo. 1982), cautioning the jury that this lawsuit is an "independent inquiry" and that "the result of the NHTSA investigation is not binding" on them.

2. Admissibility of GM Crash and Sled Test Videos: During discovery, plaintiff obtained from GM videotaped crash and sled tests which, according to Guild, show inertial unlatchings. Guild claims the sled test results are relevant because they show "a center release push-button buckle unlatching upon the application of accident forces and accelerations without any component breakage or foreign object striking the buckle release mechanisms." Palmiere Affirmation at page 13. Guild also seeks admission of the crash tests. One set of crash tests (the "N" car tests) was conducted by GM prior to plaintiff's accident and involved the same type of belt buckle which was installed on her car. The other tests (the "H" car tests) were conducted after plaintiff's accident and utilized a similar, but not identical, seat belt buckle.

The admissibility of the "crash test" evidence at issue here depends upon a foundational showing of a substantial similarity between the test results being offered into evidence and the circumstances of the accident at issue in the litigation. Ramseyer v. General Motors Corp., 417 F.2d 859, 864 (8th Cir. 1969). However, perfect identity between experimental and actual conditions is neither attainable nor required. Lobel v. American Airlines, 205 F.2d 927, 931 (2d Cir. 1953).

"Substantial similarity depends upon the underlying theory of the case," Four Corners Helicopters, Inc. v. Turbomeca S.A., 979 F.2d 1434 (10th Cir. 1992), and is defined by the particular defect at issue, Jackson v. Firestone Tire & Rubber, 788 F.2d 1070, 1083 (5th Cir. 1986). The alleged defect at issue here is the inertial unlatching of a side release seat belt buckle following a collision. The "N" car crash tests that plaintiff seeks to admit involve precisely the same seat belt buckle as that allegedly worn by plaintiff. The "H" car test utilizes a Type I buckle which has been described by GM's expert as operating under the same principles and requiring the same release pressure as the buckle worn by plaintiff. See Palmiere Affirmation at page 20. In addition, the collision speed (approximately 30 mph) and the change in velocity (delta v) factors used in the "N" and "H" car tests are consistent with the plaintiff's theory of the speed and forces involved in her accident. Plaintiff's experts have relied in part upon the crash tests to support their opinion of defect and causation. The relevancy of the "N" and "H" car tests to the plaintiff's theory of causation is apparent to this Court.

To be sure, there are differences between the crash tests and the actual collision at issue here. But GM's argument that these differences are so substantial as to make the test results irrelevant strike this Court as precarious, if not factually incongruous. For it must be remembered that the NHTSA report which GM so strenuously seeks to admit at trial is based in part on the government's analysis of 2,067 different crash and sled tests involving the performance of both side release and end release seat belts. Obviously, none of these tests attempted to duplicate the collision dynamics present in plaintiff's accident. Indeed, one can assume that most of the 2,067 crash and sled tests noted in the NHTSA report are far more dissimilar to the facts of plaintiff's accident than the few crash and sled tests plaintiff seeks to introduce at her trial. Yet, GM contends the results of the thousands of crash and sled tests relied on in the NHTSA report are similar enough to be properly relied upon by NHTSA in support of the agency's finding that there exists no reliable evidence of inertial release defects in safety belts. Suffice it to say that if the crash tests are similar enough to be evidence of non-defect, they are similar enough to be evidence of defect as well.

GM will be given ample opportunity to cross-examine plaintiff's witnesses with regard to the crash tests and to point out the differences between the actual collision and the videotaped recording of the tests. However, I find these differences go to the weight to be accorded the test results and do not bar their admissibility. See Szeliga v. General Motors Corp., 728 F.2d 566, 567 (1st Cir. 1984) ("Dissimilarities between experimental and actual conditions affect the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility"). See also Shipp v. General Motors Corp., 750 F.2d 418, 427 (5th Cir. 1985) (GM's relevancy objections to test film go to the weight to be given the evidence and there was no abuse of discretion in admitting test results); Livingston v. Isuzu Motors, Ltd., 910 F. Supp. 1473, 1493 (D.Mont. 1995) (demonstrative tests admissible where defendant free to put before jury differences between tests and actual accident); Dorsett v. American Isuzu Motors, Inc., 805 F. Supp. 1212, 1229 (E.D.Pa. 1992) (even though crash tests "were not identical to the accident, they were similar enough to aid the jury in determining what happened" to plaintiff).*fn1 Accordingly, GM's motion to preclude admission of the "N" and "H" car crash tests is denied.*fn2

3. Admissibility of the "1241 Reports": 1241 Reports are complaints received by GM from consumers concerning the failure of one of its products. They include statements by owners/drivers of its vehicles regarding the occurrence of the product failure and reports by GM personnel concerning inspection of the vehicle involved. The purpose of the reports is to alert GM to possible difficulties with its product. 1241 Reports are "not the result of a continued and detailed investigation, but rather served merely as preliminary investigation." Uitts v. General Motors, 411 F. Supp. 1380, 1382 (E.D.Pa. 1974) 1241 reports are ...


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