By John W. Scanlan, J.D.
The family of a child killed by a truck-mounted toolbox that came loose during a rear-end collision will have the opportunity to attempt to prove their claim that the toolbox was defective because the mounting cleats were not strong enough to hold the toolbox in place, a federal district court in California ruled in denying summary judgment to two defendants. Further, while the family also may pursue punitive damages, they could not maintain emotional distress claims against the two companies (Cortes Diaz v. Daws Manufacturing Co., Inc., August 11, 2017, Davila, E.).
The father, who was driving the truck, had pulled over to the shoulder because the vehicle was having mechanical problems. The truck was then hit from behind by another driver, pushing a toolbox mounted on the truck into the cab where it fatally struck the father’s four-year-old child. The family brought various negligence and strict liability claims against various entities, alleging that the design of the toolbox was defective because the plastic cleats used to attach the toolbox to the trunk were not strong enough to hold the toolbox in place during a foreseeable rear impact collision. Daws Manufacturing Co. and Diversified Fasteners, Inc. moved for summary judgment.
Causation. There was a dispute of material fact as to whether Daws’ conduct in designing the toolbox was a substantial factor in causing the child’s death. Daws asserted that the forces involved in the accident were so strong that no alternative design could have prevented the toolbox from coming loose and entering the cab. Although neither side’s experts directly addressed whether alternative mounting hardware would have made a difference, the family’s expert opined that the toolbox likely altered the truck’s crashworthiness, and a deposition by Daws’ corporate representative stated that Daws had not analyzed how the toolbox’s design might alter a vehicle’s crashworthiness in a rear impact.
Other claims. The two companies could not be held liable to the family for emotional distress because the mother and father were unaware at the time of the collision that the child’s injuries were caused by the toolbox. Even though they perceived the accident as it happened, the mother did not know that the toolbox might have caused the injuries until she was at the hospital, and the father had no memory of the collision. The family withdrew their claims for injuries to the father and related emotional distress injuries to the child’s mother and sister because the father was not struck by the toolbox.
Punitive damages. The family could pursue punitive damages because there was a factual dispute regarding whether Daws’ conduct reflected a conscious disregard of the probability that its conduct would lead to injury to others. Based on the testimony of the Daws representative, the family had asserted that while rear-end freeway collisions were foreseeable, Daws had not considered the effects of rear-end impacts or how the toolbox could affect vehicles’ crashworthiness, did not analyze the strength of the mounting cleats, did not consider materials other than plastic for the mounting cleats, failed to warn users that plastic cleats could fail in a collision, and discouraged users from drilling holes into their trucks to provide a more secure mounting method.
The case is No. 5:12-cv-05325-EJD.
Attorneys: Mark B. O'Connor (Shea & Shea) for Jesus Cortes Diaz. Bradford Alan Rosenblatt (Wiggins Marks Rosenblatt LLP) for Daws Manufacturing Co. Inc.
Companies: Daws Manufacturing Co. Inc.
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