Products Liability Law Daily Product design claims against GM in vehicle fire case survive motion for summary judgment
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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Product design claims against GM in vehicle fire case survive motion for summary judgment

By Nicholas J. Kaster, J.D.

The court granted GM’s motion to exclude the opinion of the claimants’ design defects expert only as it related to an alleged failure to warn and only to the extent that the expert may not testify that GM’s actions constituted "gross negligence" or "negligence."

In an action stemming from a vehicle fire, the federal district court in South Carolina denied General Motors’ (GM) motion for summary judgment on the claimants’ product design claims after finding that the parties clearly disputed whether modifications made to the subject vehicle’s exhaust system were material to the vehicle fire or foreseeable by GM. Therefore, the question of whether the vehicle was in essentially the same condition as when it left the hands of GM was one for the jury, the court held. However, the court found that GM was entitled to summary judgment on the claimants’ failure to warn claim. Because neither of the adult claimants had read the vehicle owner’s manual, warranty booklet/maintenance schedule, or service manual, a different warning would not have made a difference (Atanassova v. General Motors, LLC, February 22, 2021, Gergel, R.).

Background. This case arose out a fuel-fed fire that consumed the claimants’ 2007 Silverado C1500 crew cab truck. The claimants-a couple and child-alleged that the vehicle fire was not precipitated by a collision. They contended that the fire originated in the undercarriage area where the vehicle’s fuel storage tank and its fuel supply components were located. All the claimants alleged that they suffered serious injuries.

The claimants brought a products liability suit against GM, alleging that the 2007 Silverado’s fuel system and components were defectively and negligently designed, manufactured, and marketed and that those defects and negligence were the cause of the vehicle fire.

GM moved for summary judgment. In conjunction with its summary judgment motion, GM moved to exclude or limit the testimony of the claimants’ experts.

Product design claims. First, GM argued that it was entitled to summary judgment on the product design claims because the claimants could not prove that, at the time of the accident, the 2007 Silverado was in "essentially the same condition" as when it left the hands of GM.

South Carolina courts have barred recovery when "it can be shown that a product was (1) materially altered before it reached the injured user and (2) such alteration could not have been expected by the manufacturer or seller." Importantly, however, questions as to whether an injury was caused by a defect in design or whether the defect was created by the subsequent unforeseeable modification of a third party are generally for a jury.

The court denied the motion for summary judgment on the product design claims on the ground that the parties clearly disputed whether the modifications made to the subject vehicle’s exhaust system were material to the vehicle fire or foreseeable by GM. Therefore, the question of whether the 2007 Silverado was in essentially the same condition as when it left the hands of GM was clearly one for the jury.

Failure to warn claim. GM also argued that the claimants’ failure to warn claim failed because they could not show that a different warning would have changed the outcome in this case. The court found that GM was entitled to summary judgment on the failure to warm claim. Because neither of the adult claimants had read the 2007 Silverado’s Owner’s Manual, Warranty Booklet and Maintenance Schedule, or Service Manual, a different warning would not have made a difference in this case, the court stated.

Motion to exclude design defects expert. GM moved to exclude the testimony of the claimants’ design defects expert on several grounds.

First, GM argued that it was prejudiced by the late disclosure of the underlying facts and data upon which the expert relied in drafting his report. However, the court found the claimants’ error harmless. The court noted that the claimants explicitly offered to cure any such harm by giving GM additional time to review the data and by moving the deposition date. Considering this offer and that GM never sought to reschedule the deposition, the court denied GM’s motion on this point.

Second, GM argued that the expert’s report should be excluded because his methodology was unreliable. The court rejected the argument, holding that it went to the weight and credibility of the witness assessment, not its admissibility. Thus, GM’s motion was denied on this point.

Third, GM argued that the expert offered "opinions on defects which are not alleged to be the cause of the fire in this case." The court disagreed, stating that the operative complaint clearly alleged that corrosion of the fuel line and fuel pump caused the accident, and these points were addressed in the expert’s report. Thus, the court denied the motion on this point.

Fourth, GM sought to exclude the expert’s opinions as to the allegedly "defective warnings" on GM’s part. The court agreed, finding that those portions of the expert’s report concerning the alleged inadequacy of warnings must be excluded as irrelevant. As discussed above, the court granted summary judgment to GM on the failure to warn claim. Accordingly, expert testimony on the subject was no longer relevant.

Fifth, GM attacked the expert’s report on the basis that it attempted to burden manufacturers with "impossible standards." It cited the following sentence from the report: "GM, given the incidence of underbody fires (and fuel leaks that, fortunately did not result in fires) with its vehicles, should have redesigned the vehicles to avoid adding fuel to an existing fire." GM argued that because the report failed to "proffer a feasible alternative design" and failed to include a "risk-utility" evaluation, it was "unreliable" and must be excluded in whole. The court declined to exclude the expert’s report on this basis. Contrary to GM’s contention, the court said, the report did discuss alternative designs.

Sixth, GM accused the report of being unreliable because two of the opinions were allegedly "contradictory." At one point in the report, the expert stated: "GM historically used metal containers for all flammable liquids. GM has taken the position in collision-related fuel-fed fires cases that these fluids have fed the fire. It is gross negligence for General Motors to have replaced metal containers with plastic ones, without assessing the fire-related consequences. The Silverado emissions canister and fuel tank are typical examples of this dangerous practice." The expert later stated: "Further, it would have been feasible for GM to utilize a different material in the fuel pump such as stainless steel for the entire module that would have prevented corrosion in the mounting area. Many current GM vehicles also use plastic fuel pump modules, which are less expensive and more corrosion resistant than stainless steel. Many of the after-market fuel pump module replacements for the 2007 Silverado now use stainless steel or plastic to reduce corrosion."

The court declined to dismiss the report on that basis. The above observations did not represent a fundamental "contradiction" inherent to the report, the court stated. The court noted that if there was no leak from any of the locations that the expert suggested have failed in other GM vehicles, then the risk of a large conflagration was drastically reduced. The expert "mentioned both plastic and stainless steel as possible alternative materials for the fuel pump module which is not inconsistent because, if there is no fuel leak, then the issue of flammable containers for the remaining combustibles is moot." Therefore, GM’s motion was denied on this point.

Seventh, GM argued that the expert’s report must be excluded because his "proffered underbody shielding [testimony] is merely conceptual and does not constitute evidence of a feasible alternative design." The court rejected this argument, noting that in his report, the expert specifically described other vehicles manufactured by GM, which contained shields like the one the expert opined that the 2007 Silverado should have featured. Thus, GM’s motion was denied on this point.

Finally, GM argued that the expert impermissibly offered legal opinions. In his report, he opined that, "[f]ailing to conduct these types of engineering analysis on each and every safety system is negligent." The court granted GM’s motion to the extent that the expert may not opine to the jury as to whether GM’s actions constituted "negligence" or "gross negligence."

Motion to exclude burn surgeon and economic expert. GM moved to exclude certain opinions of the claimants’ burn surgeon expert and the claimants’ economic expert. Specifically, GM argued that the surgeon was not qualified to offer opinions regarding mental health and that his projections regarding mental health treatment for one of the claimants was not supported by qualified medical evidence. Relatedly, GM sought to exclude the economic expert’s testimony in so far as it relied on the surgeon’s opinions regarding the length and cost of future mental health treatment and medication.

The court rejected GM’s arguments. The court noted that diagnosing and, to some extent, treating the psychological aspects of burn injuries were important to the surgeon’s practice. The surgeon’s report made clear he was familiar with the claimants’ medical records. Additionally, his report cited six articles that explicitly concerned the psychological aspects of burn pain. This was sufficient to show that the report was based on reliable medical evidence and a sufficient methodology. Accordingly, the motion to exclude the testimony and opinions of the burn surgeon were denied. Further, because GM’s motion was based entirely on the premise that the economic expert wrongfully relied on the opinions of the surgeon (which the court declined to exclude), the court denied the motion to exclude the testimony and opinions of the economic expert.

This case is No. 2:20-cv-01728-RMG.

Attorneys: Bradley Landon Leger (Leger Ketchum and Cohoon PLLC) for Alexandrina Atanassova. Andrew Marvin Connor (Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough LLP) for General Motors LLC.

Companies: General Motors LLC

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews ExpertEvidenceNews MotorVehiclesNews SouthCarolinaNews

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