Products Liability Law Daily GM dodges accident victim’s defective passenger restraint system claims
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Monday, November 4, 2019

GM dodges accident victim’s defective passenger restraint system claims

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

Summary judgment favoring automaker was properly granted given the vehicle owner’s failure to show that his injuries had been aggravated by any defect in his pickup truck’s airbags or seatbelt.

A New York federal court properly granted summary judgment favoring General Motors LLC in a lawsuit by the owner of a pickup truck who had sustained significant personal injuries as the result of alleged defects in his truck’s passenger restraint system, a federal appellate panel ruled in a decision designated as not for publication. In so ruling, the panel affirmed the lower court decision, albeit on a different ground, i.e., the vehicle owner failed to present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that any alleged defect had caused his injuries (Michael v. General Motors LLC, October 29, 2019, per curiam).

The driver of a 2005 Chevrolet Avalanche sustained serious and debilitating injuries when his pickup truck was struck by another vehicle, crossed several lanes of traffic, and collided with a concrete barrier. Although the driver allegedly had been wearing his lap belt and harness, he was propelled through the driver’s side window and struck the barrier. The injured man filed suit in New York federal court against General Motors LLC (GM), the manufacturer of his vehicle, alleging that his seatbelt had failed to restrain him and that the driver’s side airbag in his Avalanche was defective and failed to deploy. General Motors moved for summary judgment, arguing that the vehicle owner failed to prove his claims with competent and admissible evidence.

The trial court granted GM’s motion, finding that the injury victim failed to submit sufficient circumstantial evidence to raise a question of fact under either the malfunction theory or the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to overcome testimony by the manufacturer’s experts that neither the airbag nor the seatbelt had been defectively designed or manufactured [see Products Liability Law Daily’s November 16, 2018 analysis]. The injured man appealed the trial court’s decision, contending that GM’s summary-judgment motion was untimely and that the trial court’s grant of summary judgment violated his right to a jury trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Seventh Amendment.

Timeliness. Contrary to the vehicle owner’s characterization, the appellate panel found that GM’s original summary-judgment motion was timely filed. Moreover, the trial court correctly determined that the automaker’s "amended motion"—which had been filed one day late—did not make any substantive changes and only highlighted the importance of the Notice to Pro Se Litigants, which had been timely filed on the previous day. In deciding the summary-judgment motion, the trial court relied on GM’s timely-filed Statement of Material Facts and evidence (which were not changed by the amended motion). Thus, even if the lower court considered only the first, timely-filed motion, the outcome would have been the same, the appellate panel remarked.

Constitutionality. Also unavailing was the injured man’s constitutional argument, the panel held, explaining that summary judgment does not violate the Seventh Amendment where, as here, there were no genuine issues of material fact and the movant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Alternative ground for affirming trial court’s decision. While the trial court held that the vehicle owner’s airbag claims failed because, among other things, he had not proffered any expert testimony showing that the collision should have triggered airbag deployment, the appellate panel affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in GM’s favor on a different ground, i.e., that the vehicle owner failed to present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that any alleged defect had caused his injuries.

In New York, a plaintiff must show that his or her injuries resulted from the alleged defect. Specifically, the panel instructed that where a plaintiff claims that the alleged defects did not cause the accident itself, he must show how the alleged defect aggravated his injuries (i.e., he or she must show the difference between the injuries that would have occurred without the defect and the injuries that did occur). This causation requirement applies regardless of whether the claims rely on a theory of negligence or strict liability, the panel instructed.

Airbag claim. In the case at bar, GM’s evidence showed that even if the airbag had deployed, it would not have prevented the vehicle owner’s head from moving laterally through the driver’s side window and hitting the concrete barrier. Further, the injured man did not offer any evidence countering that testimony, nor did he otherwise offer evidence that his injuries had been aggravated by the non-deployment of the airbag. In other words, he failed to present evidence that even if the airbag had deployed, his head would not have hit the concrete barrier and he would not have suffered the same injuries. As such, even if the airbag suffered from a defect (manufacturing or design), his claim failed as a matter of law.

Seatbelt claim. Summary judgment favoring GM was proper as to the vehicle owner’s seatbelt claim for the same reason: he failed to show that his injuries had been aggravated by any alleged seatbelt defect. As to the alleged manufacturing defect, GM showed that a properly worn, properly functioning seatbelt would not have prevented the injured man’s head from moving laterally outside the driver’s side window and hitting the barrier. Conversely, the injury victim failed to present any evidence countering the automaker’s evidence or otherwise showing that, had the seatbelt been properly functioning, his head would not have moved laterally outside the window and hit the concrete barrier. Instead, he argued only that he had been wearing his seatbelt correctly—a fact that GM’s experts and the trial court had assumed in their conclusions. Thus, even if the seatbelt had malfunctioned, the vehicle owner’s manufacturing defect claim failed as a matter of law, the appellate panel opined. As to the alleged design defect, the vehicle owner failed to show that such a defect enhanced his injuries because he failed to propose any reasonable design that would have prevented him from moving laterally out the window, the panel said, affirming the trial court’s decision.

The case is No. 18-3658.

Attorneys: Marcos Michael, pro se. Steven Robert Kramer (Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott LLC) for General Motors LLC.

Companies: General Motors LLC

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