By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.
A $20 million jury verdict against the manufacturer, distributor, and seller of a 1995 Mazda Miata convertible alleged to have been negligently designed because the windshield header disconnected from the convertible top during a rollover accident that left the driver severely injured was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court. In reaching its conclusion, the court held that the manufacturer had no duty to design or supply a convertible soft top that provided occupant protection in a rollover accident. In addition, the court determined that the expert witness testimony opining that the soft top’s latching was defectively designed was inadmissible because it lacked a sufficient foundation (Holiday Motor Corp. v. Walters, September 8, 2016, McClanahan, E.).
While driving her 1995 Mazda Miata convertible with the soft top closed, Shannon Walters observed a large object that "basically covered [her] whole lane of travel" come toward her from the back of a pickup truck she was following. Seeing no traffic in the oncoming lane, Walters veered left across the road, off the highway, and up a slight grassy incline. This maneuver caused the vehicle to overturn and land on its top with the driver’s side pushed up against a tree. Walters claimed that she did not lose consciousness during the accident and that her "first memory" of what happened was that her body was "light as a feather." She reported having pain in her head, neck and right arm but could not feel or move her legs.
A passerby who rendered assistance in the aftermath of the accident, testified that when he approached the vehicle, he noticed that the front of the hood and the windshield were flat on the ground. Upon entering the interior of the vehicle to assess the driver’s injuries, he found that the windshield header had separated from the soft top.
As a result of the accident, the driver filed a product liability suit against Mazda Motor Corporation, the manufacturer, Mazda Motor of America, Inc., the distributor, and Holiday Motor Corporation, the seller, (collectively Mazda) alleging negligence and breach of warranty. Following a jury trial that included expert witness testimony regarding the alleged negligently designed convertible soft top, a jury awarded the driver $20 million in damages. The defendants appealed, arguing that the manufacturer had no duty to design or supply a soft top that provided occupant protection in a rollover crash. Moreover, the defendants contended that the opinions offered by the driver’s expert witnesses should not have been admitted because they lacked foundation.
Duty. Upon review, the primary issue to be determined was whether a manufacturer of a soft top convertible owed a legally cognizable duty to design or supply a soft top or its latching system to provide occupant rollover protection. Under Virginia law, there is no duty on the part of a vehicle manufacturer to design or supply a crashworthy vehicle. As such, the state supreme court opined that if a duty to design convertible soft tops to provide occupant rollover protection exists, it must be found within the scope of a vehicle manufacturer’s duty to exercise reasonable care to design a product that is reasonably safe for the purpose for which it was intended.
After finding no industry or government standard to be applicable, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration specifically exempted convertible vehicles from their rollover occupant protection rules, and concluding that no other manufacturers of convertibles have designed or marketed soft tops to provide occupant rollover protections, the state supreme court reasoned that consumers could not reasonably expect such protections. Thus, the court held that the use of a convertible soft top, including its latches, for occupant rollover protection was neither its purpose nor an intended or reasonably foreseeable use. Accordingly, the lower court’s judgment was reversed and judgment entered in favor of the defendants because the manufacturer had no duty to design the soft top to provide such protection.
Expert witness testimony. Notwithstanding its determination that the manufacturer had no duty to design the soft top to provide rollover occupant protections, the state supreme court opined that even if a duty had existed, the driver’s expert witness’s opinion that the soft top’s latching system was defectively designed should have been ruled inadmissible because it lacked sufficient foundation. The expert admitted that he had not conducted any comparison testing, vibration analysis, or studies to determine what circumstances might cause the latching mechanism to come undone. Upon review of the evidence, the court concluded that the expert’s testimony, which was based on unfounded assumptions, was pure speculation and should not have been admitted.
The case is Record No. 150391.
Attorneys: Gregory Lee Lyons (Lichtenstein Law Group PLC) for Shannon B. Walters. Ken Carson Clendenin (O'Hagan Spencer LLP) and Christopher Channing Spencer (Spencer LLP) for Mazda Motor of America, Inc. d/b/a Mazda North America Operations.
Companies: Holiday Motor Corp.; Mazda Motor Corp.; Mazda Motor of America, Inc. d/b/a Mazda North America Operations
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