Maker of valve for motorhome’s suspension system may be liable for owner’s asphyxiation
By John W. Scanlan, J.D.
The sister of the owner of a motorhome who was asphyxiated when it lowered onto his face and chest while he was working under it can maintain design defect claims against the manufacturer of the height control valve for the motorhome’s air suspension system, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled in denying summary judgment to the manufacturer (Rapchak v. Haldex Brake Products Corp., March 15, 2016, McVerry, T.).
The chassis for the 2008 Gulfstream TourMaster motorhome at issue was designed and built by Freightliner Custom Chassis Corporation (FCCC). The chassis had an air suspension system that incorporated an off-the-shelf height control valve manufactured by Haldex Brake Products Corp. This valve allowed the air suspension system to maintain the vehicle’s ride height as the load was increased or decreased. After the fatal accident, a state trooper investigated and found that the motorhome descended nearly three inches a few minutes after the engine was turned off. A professional engineer later tested it and found a similar result, as did a test performed with representatives of the parties present. Two consultants for the motorhome’s mother found a “paste-like solid” contaminant at the valve’s port openings. However, during testing of the valve performed at a Haldex facility, Haldex did not put in place safeguards to collect materials from the valve before forcing air into it at high pressure, and some materials were lost. The valve was later disassembled, and was found to contain some materials that were consistent with those used to construct it, and others that were environmental in origin.
The sister brought strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty claims against Haldex, as well as the makers of the motorhome, the chassis, and the suspension system. Haldex is now the only remaining defendant, and the sister abandoned all claims except their strict liability—design defect claim. Haldex moved to exclude the opinion testimony of the sister’s consultant engineering expert and also moved for summary judgment.
Expert testimony. The court denied the motion to exclude the engineer’s testimony. Haldex argued that the engineer’s testimony was unreliable because it was based only on speculation that the valve was defective because it should have included a protective screen to avoid contamination. However, the engineer based his assertion that a contaminant prevented the valve’s exhaust port from closing when it should have after reviewing the reports of the state trooper and the first engineer, the film of the testing by the two parties, his examination of the valve, his witnessing of the Haldex facility testing, his examination of the particulates inside the valve after disassembly, and his studying of test results. In addition, the engineer used scientific principles in dismissing alternative causes of the accident. While Haldex argued that the engineer did not know what materials were lodged in the valve and could not perform tests to confirm or disprove his hypothesis, the court noted that this argument ignored Haldex’s responsibility for the loss of material that occurred at its lab from machines under its control. The engineer was able to perform tests that showed that particulates large enough to obstruct the closure of the valve would have been prevented from entering the valve by a filter of the type Haldex itself designed, manufactured, and sold.
Design defect. The court also declined to grant summary judgment to Haldex on the design defect claim. Although Haldex argued that the family could not prove that the valve was in a defective condition, there was enough evidence in the record for a jury to weigh the proper balance of risk and utility and what consumer expectations were appropriate. The company’s argument that the family could not carry the burden of showing that the valve was in the same condition at the time of the accident as it was when it left the company’s control ignored the fact that the sister’s design defect theory was that the valve lacked a protective filter, and its argument that the valve was a maintenance item that had 4 Â½ years and 37,000 miles on it focused only on the manufacture and not the alleged design defect in the valve.
The case is No. 2:13-cv-1307.
Attorneys: John A. Caputo (Law Office of John A. Caputo) for Bonnie Rapchak. Kenneth T. Newman (Thomas, Thomas & Hafer, LLP) and Steven G. Emerson (Stinson Leonard Street LLP) for Haldex Brake Products Corp.
Companies: Haldex Brake Products Corp.
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