Products Liability Law Daily Injured passengers can proceed on product-defect claims against tire maker in car-crash case
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Injured passengers can proceed on product-defect claims against tire maker in car-crash case

By Susan Engstrom

A Texas trial court erred in granting a tire maker’s motion for summary judgment with respect to negligence and defective design, manufacturing, and marketing claims brought by passengers who sustained personal injuries in a rollover accident after a rear tire of the sport utility vehicle in which they were traveling burst, an appellate panel in that state ruled, remanding those claims to the lower court for further proceedings. However, the trial court did not err in finding that the manufacturer was entitled to summary judgment on the passengers’ causes of action for punitive damages and post-sale duty to warn (Medina v. Michelin North America, Inc., January 29, 2018, Evans, D.).

On the day of the accident, an individual was driving a 2000 Ford Expedition when the left rear tire suddenly burst, causing the SUV to roll over and seriously injure the vehicle’s passengers. The subject tire was a Michelin LTX M/S manufactured by Michelin North America, Inc. in 2001 that still had approximately three times the federal minimum tread remaining on the tire at the time of the accident. The passengers filed suit against Michelin, alleging that the tire was negligently or defectively designed and/or manufactured, resulting in the tire’s failure and subsequent accident. They also asserted causes of action for negligent/defective marketing, post-sale duty to warn, and gross negligence/punitive damages. Denying Michelin’s motion to exclude the testimony of the passengers’ tire expert, who opined that the design and manufacture of the subject tire were faulty, the trial court granted the manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment on all of the passengers’ claims. The passengers appealed.

Design defect, manufacturing defect, and negligence claims. With respect to the passengers’ design defect, manufacturing defect, and negligence claims, Michelin’s motion for summary judgment specifically indicated that its no-evidence grounds were based on the anticipated exclusion of the tire expert’s testimony rather than on the content of his opinions. The motion did not generally assert that the passengers had no evidence of certain elements of those claims, or that the expert’s opinions or testimony constituted no evidence to support particular elements of the claims.

Under Texas law, a trial court cannot grant summary judgment on grounds not presented in the motion. In a no-evidence motion for summary judgment, the movant must specifically state the element for which there is no evidence. Here, Michelin’s only basis for its no-evidence summary judgment motion was the lack or absence of expert testimony should the manufacturer’s motion to exclude that testimony be granted. The no-evidence motion itself specifically requested that the trial court not consider the no-evidence summary judgment motion until it had considered and ruled on Michelin’s motion to exclude. In granting summary judgment after denying the motion to exclude, the trial court necessarily concluded that the expert’s testimony constituted no evidence. Because Michelin did not move for summary judgment on that ground, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on the passengers’ defective design, defective manufacturing, and negligence claims once it denied the manufacturer’s motion to exclude. Thus, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment on those claims was reversed.

Marketing defect claim. To prevail on a marketing defect claim under Texas law, a plaintiff must establish, among other things, that the alleged failure to warn and/or instruct constituted a causative nexus in the product user’s injury. To prove causation when no warning is provided, a plaintiff is aided by a rebuttable presumption that proper warnings would have been heeded. However, no presumption will arise if the plaintiff failed to read the warning given, which, if followed, would have prevented the injuries.

Here, the passengers produced sufficient evidence to create a fact issue as to whether Michelin’s alleged failure to warn of the danger posed by the tire had a causative nexus to their injuries. This evidence included an affidavit from the SUV’s seller stating his belief that the vehicles he sold, including their tires, were safe, and that he was unaware of any safety problem relating to any Michelin tire or the tires on the at-issue vehicle. The passengers also contended that the subject tire should have had a warning indicating that it was unsafe after it was ten years old. They asserted that if such a warning had been provided, the seller would have heeded it and would not have placed the tire on the vehicle prior to selling it. Contrary to Michelin’s assertion, evidence that the vehicle owners and two of the passengers did not and could not read the existing warnings on the tire did not conclusively negate causation because the company did not establish that had they heeded those warnings, their injuries would have been prevented. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the passengers, the appeals court determined that Michelin did not conclusively establish that it was entitled to summary judgment on the marketing defect claim.

Punitive damages. The passengers also asserted a claim for punitive damages based on gross negligence but they failed to put forth more than a scintilla of evidence that: (1) the tire in question posed an extreme degree of risk; and (2) Michelin had actual subjective awareness of the extreme degree of risk but nevertheless proceeded with conscious indifference to the consequences of its acts. The passengers argued instead that Michelin "intentionally" chose a design that did not include an alternative design of a nylon cap ply (which their expert contended was safer) and that the manufacturer knew the risks presented by tire aging. Thus, the passengers failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact on the elements of their gross negligence claim, and the trial court did not err in granting Michelin’s no-evidence motion for summary judgment on punitive damages.

Post-sale duty to warn. In what Michelin characterized as a "post-sale duty to warn" claim, the passengers contended that the manufacturer "carelessly and recklessly fail[ed] to recall the said tire, modify the design and fail[ed] to provide a post-manufacture, post-sale and post-inspection warning to the foreseeable public, end-users, consumers, operators, motorists, occupants and passengers such as Plaintiffs." Texas has not recognized a general duty to warn of product defects not discovered until after manufacture and sale, and the passengers cited no authority to support their contention that Michelin’s pre-sale knowledge of a defect would support a "post-sale duty to warn" cause of action distinct from their other failure to warn claims already addressed by the appellate court. Thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to the manufacturer on the post-sale duty to warn claim.

The case is No. 05-16-00794-CV.

Attorneys: David Coale (Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst, LLP) for Samuel Medina. Melissa M. Davis (Thompson & Knight LLP) for Michelin North America, Inc.

Companies: Samuel Medina; Michelin North America, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews DamagesNews MotorEquipmentNews TexasNews

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