Products Liability Law Daily Insufficient evidence for jury to consider whether failure of seat latches caused child’s ejection from minivan
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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Insufficient evidence for jury to consider whether failure of seat latches caused child’s ejection from minivan

By David Yucht, J.D.

The dissenting judges believed that the case for design defect and failure to warn should have been considered by a jury.

In a crashworthiness case, a state appellate panel in Arkansas agreed with a lower court that there was insufficient evidence that the failure of seat latches caused a boy to be ejected from a Toyota minivan during a roll-over accident. Additionally, the state circuit court accurately ruled that an adequate warning "would have been futile under the circumstances." Consequently, the court of appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling directing a verdict in favor of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., throwing out claims of defective design and failure to warn filed by the boy’s representatives. A dissenting opinion was filed opining that the primary product-liability claim-that Toyota’s rear-passenger restraint system was defective and unreasonably dangerous-should have been submitted to the jury for decision (Miaoulis v. Toyota Motor North America, Inc., January 13, 2021, Brown, W.).

A single-car rollover accident involving a 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan occurred on an interstate highway in Arkansas. A boy was seated in a captain’s seat behind the driver’s seat. According to the complaint, he was injured when his seat disengaged from the floor of the vehicle and was thrown from the vehicle with him belted in the seat. The boy’s representative sued several Toyota entities-Toyota Motor Corporation; Toyota Motor North America, Inc. d/b/a Toyota Motor Co.; Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc.; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.; and Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. (collectively, Toyota) asserting, in part, negligence, strict liability for design defects and strict liability for failure to warn. The complaint alleged that defective latches securing the second-row seat where the boy was riding "inertially unlatched" in reaction to the gravitational forces of the accident, causing both the seat and the child to be ejected from the vehicle. The case was tried before a jury. Following the presentation of the case-in-chief, Toyota moved for a directed verdict. The court found that the boy’s representative did not prove a defect or proximate cause because her experts’ testimony did not establish any cause of the alleged seat ejection to a probability but only suggested a range of possibilities. Accordingly, the trial court granted Toyota’s motion for directed verdict on all claims and dismissed the case. The boy’s representative appealed.

Causation-design defect. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision to dismiss the design defect claim. The representative argued that she presented substantial evidence to establish a design defect as the proximate cause of the boy’s injuries. She further argued that there were three separate failure modes of the same design defect and that she pinpointed inertial release as more likely than not as the sole cause of the latch failure. She relied on the testimony of two experts regarding accident reconstruction, biomechanics, and seat-latch design. An automotive engineer testified that he tested seat latches, both new and used, from the Toyota minivan and its competitor. He found that the Toyota latch was the weakest he had tested requiring minimal force to allow the handle to unlatch and release the entire seat. He concluded that the Toyota seat latches were susceptible to unwanted release in a foreseeable rollover accident. A professor of vehicle dynamics and biomechanics conducted a reconstruction of the accident. He offered three possibilities as to how the seat released: (1) false latching of the seat latch, where the latches were believed to be latched but were not; (2) inadvertent unlatching by something inadvertently striking the lever actuating the seat latch; and (3) the inertial release of the seat latch by forces applied to it during the accident. He testified that he could not "distinguish likelihood between the three … [a]ll three [we]re equally likely." The appellate court noted that when trial evidence of causation presents no more than a choice of alternatives, it is not substantial evidence which can support a finding of liability. Several possible causes of the seat dislodging were argued, but they were only possibilities, and did not reach the status of probabilities. Neither expert witness opined that the accident involved here was caused by inertial release of the seat.

Failure to warn. The court of appeals also upheld the lower court’s decision dismissing the failure to warn claim. Once a lack of an adequate warning is shown, a presumption arises that the user would have read and heeded adequate warnings. This presumption may be rebutted by evidence demonstrating that an adequate warning "would have been futile under the circumstances." The vehicle owner testified that he purchased the Toyota minivan used but could not recall the date of purchase. He stated that he was unaware that he could remove the seats from the vehicle. He also said that he had never tried to adjust the seats. Here, the lower court’s ruling was correct because the evidence established that the vehicle’s owner never removed the seat. As such, the representative failed to establish that a different warning would have made a difference under the facts of the case.

Dissenting opinion. Chief Judge Brandon J. Harrison filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Judge Mike Murphy, disagreeing with the decision to affirm the circuit court’s directed verdict against the product-liability claim-that Toyota’s rear-passenger restraint system was defective and unreasonably dangerous, as well as the failure to warn claim. Based on the record, which was quite lengthy and technical, Judge Harrison was persuaded that the lower court should have sent the design-defect claim to the jury and let it determine which side presented the most scientifically and factually sound, and, therefore, more credible, case. Concerning the failure to warn claim, the vehicle owner in no way admitted that he habitually did not read warning labels. He presented evidence that there was a lack of an adequate warning. He presented testimony to engage a presumption that he would have read and heeded adequate warnings about the rear-seat latch. Moreover, Toyota did not rebut this presumption because it did not establish that a warning would have been futile. Thus, the dissent opined, the jury should have been permitted to decide the warning claim as a matter of fact while being guided by proper instructions.

The case is No. CV-18-752.

Attorneys: Phillip Duncan (Duncan Firm, P.A.) for Theresa Vigo Miaoulis. Edwin L. Lowther, Jr. (Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP) for Toyota Motor North America, Inc., d/b/a Toyota Motor Co.

Companies: Toyota Motor North America, Inc., d/b/a Toyota Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews CausationNews EvidentiaryNews WarningsNews MotorEquipmentNews MotorVehiclesNews ArkansasNews

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