Motor Vehicle Defects Spur Boston Product Liability Lawsuits

Most car accidents are the result of negligence of one or more drivers. However, there are some instances in which crashes result from or are exacerbated by the negligence of a vehicle manufacturer, repair shop, dealer or motor vehicle transport company.

In these cases, plaintiffs will pursue a Boston products liability lawsuit against one or more companies involved in the manufacture, distribution or negligent repair of the vehicle – so long as they can establish a causal connection between the defect or faulty repair and the collision.

Chrysler Group, LLC v. Walden

Boston Products LiabilityIn Chrysler Group, LLC v. Walden, a case from the Supreme Court of Georgia, victim, a 4-year-old child, was a rear seat passenger in a 1999 Jeep traveling 50 miles-per-hour when a negligent motorist in a pickup truck rear-ended the Jeep, resulting in injuries to victim. Those injuries were serious, but not life-threatening. It wasn’t until the vehicle burst into flames that he suffered deadly burns and smoke inhalation. Although his parents, acting as his personal representatives, had ample cause of action to pursue a claim against the negligent motorist (and did so), they also asserted a right to compensation from the Jeep manufacturer for product liability, arguing a vehicle defect was to blame for the boy’s death.

Determining Proper Defendants in Boston Products Liability Lawsuits

As our Boston products liability attorneys can explain, there are often many theories of liability and many parties who could be named as possible defendants. In some of these cases, numerous defendants are named liable by plaintiff. Those defendants may fight it out among themselves in court as to which company is actually liable. If more than one entity deemed liable, it’s typically up to the court to ascertain the percentage of fault each defendant shares. Some plaintiff attorneys will decide on a legal strategy that involves naming all defendants. In other cases, not all defendants are named and it’s up to the named defendants to assert liability of these third parties. This is known as an impleader and it is governed by Rule 14 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which is aptly named, Third-Party Practice.

In Chrysler Group, LLC, neither the plaintiff’s aunt, who was driving the Jeep, nor the at-fault driver, were injured. However, 4-year-old plaintiff suffered a broken leg. Then, a gas tank mounted to the rear underside of the vehicle ignited in the crash, causing the rear passenger compartment to burst into flames. The boy unsuccessfully tried to scramble out of the car to save his own life.  Several crash witnesses later testified testified they heard the young boy screaming in pain just prior to his death.

The boy’s parents filed a lawsuit against the other driver for negligence and also against the automaker for product liability, alleging the fuel tank should never how been mounted on the rear of a vehicle, as this posed an unreasonable risk.

In this case, plaintiffs argued the boy’s death would not have occurred had defendant not allegedly rear-ended plaintiff’s vehicle, and plaintiff would not have died in the fire had it not been for the negligent and defective design of the vehicle in which he was a passenger. This goes to the theories of causation and whether automaker’s alleged negligence was a superseding or intervening act.

Superseding and Intervening Acts in Boston Products Liability Cases

Pursuant to Massachusetts law, if a torfeasor causes harm to a plaintiff, and then plaintiff is injured again by a third-party, we refer to this as an intervening act. Essentially, the second tortfeasor, intervened in the already dangerous situation and caused more damage.  There is generally no question whether intervening party is responsible, the but the question is whether first tortfeasor is also responsible for harm caused in second accident.

For example, if defendant hits plaintiff with his car and then plaintiff gets in an ambulance, and this ambulance is in another accident on the way to the hospital, first tortfeasor may also be responsible caused in this second accident because it is foreseeable.  This is known as a non-superseding intervening act.  If however, the second torfeasor’s negligent conduct was unforeseeable, it would be a superseding intervening act and it would typically  absolve first tortfeasor from future harm done in the second accident.

In Chrysler Group, LLC, plaintiff was looking for punitive damages and was trying prove income of automaker’s CEO.  Punitive damages are generally only used to punish a defendant when an alleged breach of one’s duty of care was particular severe.  Normally, only compensatory damages are deemed appropriate where the goal is fully compensate plaintiffs for injuries caused, but juries are not allowed to punish defendants or send a message.

In this case, defendant’s COO was questioned about CEO’s annual salary along with all bonuses and benefits.  This could be relevant as in many products liability cases in Boston where manufacturer is alleged to have knowingly refused to fix safety issues because it would have cut into profits and executive bonuses.  Defendant objected on grounds this information was unfairly prejudicial and this prejudice outweighs any probabtive value. This known as a Rule 403 objection in federal courts in Massachusetts. Trial court overruled these objection and allowed wealth of party evidence to come into for the jury to consider. The argument was by not fixing the problem, they looked at what it would cost to fix, and how much it would cut into profits and CEO’s bonus, so CEO allegedly earned 43 times what he valued plaintiff’s life at in just one year. This is a very powerful argument in a punitive damages case. The jury found for plaintiff and awarded a considerable amount in punitive damages likely relying of proof of wealth arguments.

On appeal, intermediary court of appeals affirmed trial court’s decision to allow proof of wealth of evidence at trial.  In a final to state supreme court, this court considered an argument against a 403 standard and held it was relevant and not overly prejudicial, but did not make a bright-line rule where proof of wealth evidence was allowed in every products liability case.

If you are the victim of Massachusetts product liability, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Chrysler Group, LLC v. Walden, March 15, 2018, Supreme Court of Georgia

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Transvaginal Mesh Update: Boston Scientific Settles with 350 Plaintiffs, Feb. 11, 2018, Boston Product Liability Attorney Blog