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Harrison v. Ford Motor Co.

United States District Court, Second Circuit

June 18, 2013

HEATHER HARRISON, Plaintiff,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.

SCARZAFAVA & BASDEKIS, LLP John Scarzafava, Esq., Oneonta, New York, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

WHEELER TRIGG O'DONNELL LLP Edward C. Stewart, Esq., Bryan D. Cross, Esq., Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Defendant.

GIBSON, McAKSILL LAW FIRM Chemical Bank Building Buffalo, New York, Attorneys for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

MAE A. D'AGOSTINO, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Heather Harrison ("plaintiff") commenced the within action against defendant Ford Motor Company ("defendant" or "Ford") seeking compensatory and punitive damages with claims of strict liability, negligence and breach of warranty for personal injuries sustained as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Presently before the Court are two motions. On January 15, 2013, plaintiff filed a motion pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure seeking partial summary judgment dismissing defendant's affirmative defense of comparative negligence. (Dkt. No. 39). Defendant opposed the motion and filed a motion for summary judgment and dismissal of plaintiff's complaint, in its entirety. (Dkt. No. 40).

BACKGROUND[1]

I. Facts

There are few relevant facts that are undisputed. On November 4, 2010, plaintiff was ejected from the 1987 Ford Bronco II that she was operating on northbound Highway 20 between Walton and Franklin, New York. The vehicle rolled over a guardrail and down an embankment. Plaintiff sustained injuries resulting in permanent paralysis.

The subject vehicle had at least four prior owners and had been involved in a prior accident. In 2008 or 2009, Matthew Magee sold the vehicle to William Harrison for approximately $100.00. At the time of the crash, plaintiff's Bronco II had been modified and while the parties do not agree on the extent of the modifications, plaintiff concedes that Mr. Harrison made multiple changes to the vehicle himself including replacing the engine, drive shaft, adding a snow plow attachment to the tubular steel aftermarket bumpers, tires and wheels. The seat belt buckle in the 1987 Bronco II was an RCF-67 buckle mounted on a plastic stalk, called a "presenter". Defendant claims that the buckle and presenter are attached to the driver's seat so that the buckle remains in the same accessible position relative to the occupant for ease of use. The original equipment driver's-side restraint system in plaintiff's Bronco II met all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards at the time it was originally sold by defendant.

II. Pleadings

On September 17, 2012, plaintiff filed an amended complaint asserting three causes of action: negligence, strict tort liability and breach of warranty.[2] Plaintiff alleges that defendant was "negligent in the design, construction, manufacture, sale, marketing, distribution, inspecting, and testing of the Ford Bronco II, which was unreasonably dangerous and defective because of its defective restraint system" and "that the restraint system within the Ford Bronco II was defective and unreasonably dangerous in its design, construction, manufacture, sale, marketing, distribution, and testing, and/or in failing to recall, retrofit, or modify the restraint system within said Ford Bronco II, which was unreasonably dangerous and defective". Plaintiff also claims that defendant failed to provide adequate warnings and instructions to users of its products. See Pltf. Am. Cmplt. at ΒΆ 6, 8.

On October 1, 2012, defendant filed an answer to plaintiff's amended complaint asserting eighteen affirmative defenses, (Dkt. No. 37), including, inter alia:

16. The culpable conduct of the Plaintiff, if not the sole cause of damages sustained by the Plaintiff in the accident alleged in the Amended Complaint, contributed to such injuries and damages and any damages otherwise recoverable by Plaintiff in this action shall be diminished in the proportion which the Plaintiff's culpable conduct bears to the culpable conduct whiich caused such damages, pursuant to Article 14A of the New York State Civil Practice Law and Rules.
18. That at the time of the occurrence alleged in the Amended Complaint, the Plaintiff had available for her use seatbelts and shoulder harnesses, to restrict her movement within the vehicle in which she was riding, but said Plaintiff was contributorily negligent in that she did not use said devices with the result that the injuries and damages to the Plaintiff and the extent thereof was increased beyond what it would have been if the aforementioned device had been used by Plaintiff.
21. Plaintiff is not entitled to recover to the extent any alleged damages or injuries were caused by the misuse, abuse, or failure to properly maintain or care for the product.
22. The 1987 Ford Bronco II and its components, that are the subject of this lawsuit, have been changed or modified from its original configuration, and, as a result, the answering Defendant is not liable to the Plaintiff for any injury resulting therefrom.
23. Any injury, loss and/or damages that may have been sustained by Plaintiff was the result of an independent, intervening agency or instrumentality over which answering Defendant had no control or right of control.

III. Plaintiff's Expert

Stephen R. Syson was retained by plaintiff as an engineering consultant to examine the restraint system performance and crashworthiness of plaintiff's vehicle. Syson concluded that plaintiff was belted at the beginning of the accident. Syson opined that, "there were sufficient forces acting upon Ms. Harrison's accident buckle to cause it to inertially unlatch". The parties agree that for the phenomenon of inertial unlatching to occur, a buckle must be impacted at a sufficient force, for a sufficient duration, in a specific direction, at a time when the occupant is exerting little or no force on the restraint's webbing. The parties further agree that the level of force (expressed in terms of acceleration, or "Gs") at which a buckle may be subject to inertial unlatching can vary due to manufacturing tolerance, friction due to corrosion and the condition of the buckles latch spring.[3] While plaintiff admits that Syson cannot rule out that the corrosion on the subject buckle's components increased the G-levels at which it might be subject to inertial unlatching, plaintiff claims that any such variance was not so great to have any practical impact on the inertial unlatching threshold of the subject buckle. Syson did not test the subject buckle to determine the G-level.

DISCUSSION

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c). Substantive law determines which facts are material; that is, which facts might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 258 (1986). A party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the Court, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, determines that the movant has satisfied this burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to adduce evidence establishing the existence of a disputed issue of material fact requiring a trial. See id. If the nonmovant fails to carry this burden, summary judgment is appropriate. See id.

Summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 is only appropriate where admissible evidence in the form of affidavits, deposition transcripts, or other documentation demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, and one party's entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Viola v. Philips Med. Sys. of N. Am., 42 F.3d 712, 716 (2d Cir.1994). No genuinely triable factual issue exists when the moving party demonstrates, on the basis of the pleadings and submitted evidence, and after drawing all inferences and resolving all ambiguities in favor of the non-movant, that no rational jury could find in the non-movant's favor. Chertkova v. Conn. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 92 F.3d 81, 86 (2d Cir.1996) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (c). In applying this standard, the court should not weigh evidence or assess the credibility of witnesses. Hayes v. New York City Dep't of Corr., 84 F.3d 614, 619 (2d Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). These determinations are within the sole province of the jury. Id.

II. DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT[4]

A. Negligence and Strict Liability

Plaintiff's negligence and products liability claims are grounded in the Inertial Release/ Unlatching Theory. Specifically, plaintiff contends that due to the force of her impact, her seat belt buckle unlatched/opened causing her to be ejected from the vehicle. Defendant argues that plaintiff's theory lacks support in the scientific and legal community and thus, summary judgment is warranted. In the alternative, defendant argues that even if the buckle released, the restraint system was modified/altered from its original design such that defendant cannot be liable for the system. Finally, in the alternative, defendant moves to exclude plaintiff's expert witness from presenting testimony with respect to the inertial release theory arguing that his opinion is unreliable and thus, argues that summary judgment is appropriate.

"In New York, a plaintiff injured by an allegedly defective product may seek recovery against the manufacturer on the basis of any one or more of four theories of liability, " including express contract, implied contract, negligence, or strict products liability. Voss v. Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 59 N.Y.2d 102, 106 (1983) (citing Victorson v. Bock Laundry Mach. Co., 37 N.Y.2d 395, 373 N.Y.S.2d 39 (1975)). Established New York law holds "that the manufacturer of a defective product is liable to any person injured or damaged if the defect was a substantial factor in bringing about his injury or damages; provided (1) that at the time of the occurrence the product is being used... for the purpose and in the manner normally intended, (2) that if the person injured or damaged is himself the user of the product he would not by the exercise of reasonable care have both discovered the defect and perceived its danger, and (3) that by the exercise of reasonable care the person injured or damaged would not otherwise have averted his injury or damages.'" Voss, 59 N.Y.2d at 106 (quoting Codling v. Paglia, 32 N.Y.2d 330, 342 (1973)). A manufacturer may be liable under strict products liability for defective products based on a "manufacturing flaw, improper design or failure to warn." Sukljian v. Charles Ross & Son Co., Inc., 69 N.Y.2d 89, 94 (1986) (citations omitted). Specifically, under strict products liability, a manufacturer which places a defective product on the market is liable for injury resulting from using the product for its intended or reasonably foreseeable purposes. See Denny v. Ford Motor Corp, 87 N.Y.2d 248, 258-59 (1995). In the present matter, plaintiff alleges strict products liability claims of defective design and failure to warn.

To establish a prima facie case in strict products liability based on design defect, "the plaintiff must show that the manufacturer breached its duty to market safe products when it marketed a product designed so that it was not reasonably safe and that the defective design was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff's injury.'" Adams v. Genie Indus., Inc., 14 N.Y.3d 535, 542 (2010) (quotation omitted).[5] Whether a product "is not reasonably safe" has been described as follows: "whether... if the design defect were known at the time of the manufacture, a reasonable person would conclude that the utility of the product did not outweigh the risk inherent in marketing a product designed in that manner.'" Id. (quotation omitted). Therefore, to succeed on this claim, plaintiffs must establish that (1) the product as designed posed a substantial likelihood of harm; (2) it was feasible to design the product in a safer manner; and (3) the defective design was a substantial factor in causing her injury. See Voss, 59 N.Y.2d at 108 (citation omitted).

Although plaintiffs assert the design defect claim under theories of strict products liability and negligence, the same prima facie case is required under both theories. See Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co., 283 F.3d 33, 62-63 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Denny, 87 N.Y.2d at 248) ("In general, ... the strict liability concept of defective design' is functionally synonymous with the earlier negligence concept of unreasonable designing" (internal citation omitted)). In particular, the decisive question for both strict liability and negligent design causes of action is whether the evidence establishes that the product "was not reasonably safe' as Voss defines the term." Adams, 14 N.Y.3d at 543. Moreover, it is well-settled law that "[w]here liability ...


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