By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.
A tire manufacturer’s alleged failure to warn about the dangers of rubber degradation in old tires, which led to a single-vehicle accident in which an elderly passenger was seriously injured, was not the cause in fact of the passenger’s death six years later from injuries sustained when the mobility scooter he had used since the first accident was struck by another vehicle, a California Court of Appeal ruled, affirming the trial court’s verdict in favor of the manufacturer. According to the court of appeal, the vehicle-scooter accident was not a foreseeable consequence of the manufacturer’s alleged failure to warn (Novak v. Continental Tire North America, filed March 20, 2018, certified for publication April 12, 2018, Pollak, S.).
In 2005, the vehicle in which the passenger was riding experienced a tire blowout and collided with a power pole. The accident left the passenger disabled and he required the use of a three-wheel motorized scooter as a mobility aid. The passenger filed an action for strict product liability and negligence against the tire manufacturer for failure to warn that tires degrade with age and should be replaced even if the tire showed good tread depth. Judgment was rendered in favor of the tire manufacturer and the passenger’s appeal was granted, While the appeal was pending, and six years after the tire blowout accident, the passenger died from injuries received when a car making a right-hand turn collided with his scooter in the crosswalk. His daughter filed a wrongful death action against the tire manufacturer alleging that it was liable for the 2005 tire blowout and resulting collision and, by extension, the tire manufacturer was liable for her father’s death following the vehicle-scooter accident.
Foreseeability and superseding cause. The question at issue was one of causation and the arguments presented on behalf of the passenger focused on one aspect of causation, that of cause in fact, or actual, physical or logical cause. California has adopted the substantial factor test for determining cause in fact and, under that standard, the question presented was whether the tire manufacturer’s alleged failure to warn was a substantial factor in causing the passenger’s injuries and subsequent death. According to the court of appeal, the answer to that question was dependent on policy considerations, including whether the tire manufacturer should be held liable for the unforeseeable consequences of its conduct, and whether there were intervening causes operating independently of the tire manufacturer’s conduct.
The vehicle-scooter accident in this case was not a foreseeable consequence of the tire manufacturer’s alleged failure to warn that old tires on another vehicle driven years earlier by another motorist were prone to blowouts. The connection between the tire manufacturer’s conduct and the injury sustained in the vehicle-scooter accident was too weak to be encompassed by the scope of risk created by the tire manufacturer’s alleged failure to warn. Instead, the vehicle-scooter accident operated independently of any situation created by the manufacturer’s alleged negligence and, instead, was the result of the superseding cause of a motorist’s wrongful failure to yield when entering a crosswalk.
Recognizing that causation was generally a question of fact for the jury, the court of appeal went on to rule that the causal connection between the tire manufacturer’s alleged misconduct and the passenger’s injury was so tenuous that no reasonable connection could be made between the original act and its consequences. Thus, the question could be decided as a matter of law.
"Normal consequences" standard. The court of appeal also rejected the argument that, under the Restatement Second of Torts, section 460, the tire manufacturer should be held liable for the passenger’s death from the second accident because the vehicle-scooter accident would not have occurred had the passenger not been disabled as a result of the first accident for which the tire manufacturer was responsible. The court of appeal explained that the Restatement rule applied only when the second accident was the normal consequence of the original injury, which it was not under the substantial factor test. In addition, the Restatement rule cited did not address the issue of whether the tire manufacturer could be found liable for a second injury caused by the negligence of a third person in combination with the passenger’s impaired condition.
The case is No. A149494, A150751, A150752.
Attorneys: Stephen F. Von Till (Von Till & Associates) for Paula J. Novak. Walter M. Yoka (Yoka & Smith, LLP) for Continental Tire North America.
Companies: Continental Tire North America
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