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N.C. SC rules in favor of Ford in product liability suit

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 20, 2012


RALEIGH, N.C. (Legal Newsline) - The North Carolina Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of Ford Motor Company in a lawsuit brought over the seat belt system in the car maker's popular Taurus.

The Court, in its April 13 opinion, reversed the decision of a state Court of Appeals, which had reversed the judgment of a trial court that relieved Ford of liability.

At issue is whether the product alteration or modification defense, provided to manufacturers and sellers in product liability actions by Section 99B-3 in North Carolina's General Statutes, applies only if the one who altered or modified the product is a party to the litigation at the time of trial.

By its plain language, 99B-3 protects manufacturers and sellers from liability for injury proximately caused by a modification or alteration made by anyone else to their product without their consent or instruction.

Tonya Stark was driving her husband, Gordon, to work and her children, Cody and Cheyenne, to school in a 1998 Ford Taurus on the morning of April 28, 2003.

After making a U-turn and entering a parking lot, the car began to accelerate rapidly.

Both Tonya and Gordon struggled over the steering wheel. Eventually, the car went up and over a small curbed island containing mulch and grass, and then slammed into the concrete base of a light pole at about 26 miles per hour.

At no point did Tonya apply the car's brakes.

The Starks suffered numerous injuries as a result of the crash.

Gordon shattered his elbow and left wrist, and broke his left shoulder. Following the crash, doctors informed him that his left hand might need to be amputated due to the severity of the fracture.

Cody and Cheyenne had the most serious injuries.

Cody experienced a tear in his liver, several superficial tears on the surface of his colon, a hematoma underneath his bowel, and a perforation of his small bowel causing leakage into his stomach. He required emergency life-saving surgery as a result.

Cheyenne sustained bruises on her abdomen, an abrasion on her forehead, a tear on the tip of her tongue, and an injury to her spinal cord.

Though she was able to walk after the crash, her condition deteriorated later that day and she became paralyzed.

Through their guardian ad litem, Cheyenne and Cody sued Ford.

Plaintiffs acknowledged that Ford did not cause the wreck, but claimed that the car's seat belt system caused their enhanced, or more serious, injuries.

In particular, they argued that the seat belts did not fit them properly and did not hold them in place during the accident.

In response, Ford asserted that Cody and Cheyenne suffered their injuries because of the seriousness of the collision and a failure to use the Taurus -- specifically its safety equipment -- as it was designed and as Ford instructed.

It argued that the Taurus and its seat belt system are reasonably designed and safe when used properly.

Following a five-week trial and three days of deliberation, a jury returned its verdict, finding Ford not liable for the enhanced injuries to Cody and Cheyenne.

The plaintiffs were unable to sustain an unreasonable design claim for Cody's belt, but did so with respect to Cheyenne's.

However, the jury determined that Cheyenne's enhanced injuries were proximately caused by a modification of the Taurus, which relieved Ford of liability.

The Mecklenburg County Superior Court entered judgment accordingly and taxed $45,717.92 in costs against the plaintiffs and the guardian ad litem.

After unsuccessfully moving for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, a new trial on the modification defense and a new trial on all issues, they appealed from the judgment, the order taxing costs and the order denying their alternative motions.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's judgment, holding, among other things, that the plaintiffs were entitled to a directed verdict on Ford's affirmative defense under 99B-3.

The appeals court reasoned that 99B-3 gives a manufacturer or seller no defense when the product modifier is not a party to the action at the time of trial.

Since Gordon Stark was not a party to the action at the time of trial, any modification by him could not support the defense in 99B-3, it explained.

Ford argued that the superior court properly interpreted the statute.

Justice Paul M. Newby, who wrote the high court's 21-page opinion, said whether a manufacturer or seller can avail itself of this statutory defense depends on when and how the modification or alteration occurred and, to a limited extent, on who modified or altered the product.

"The General Assembly did not limit the use of this defense to those occasions when the one who alters or modifies the product is a party to the action at the time of trial," he wrote.

Simply put, the appeals court's reading of 99B-3 is not supported by the text of the statute, the Court said.

"If the General Assembly had intended to limit the availability of this defense to the circumstances articulated by the Court of Appeals, it could have done so by inserting the words 'to the action' into the statute," Newby wrote, adding that it did not.

As for the directed verdict inquiry, the Court said the question is whether there is sufficient evidence, or some factual basis, to support a determination that someone other than Ford modified the Taurus.

The Court said such evidence does, in fact, exist.

"He (Gordon) testified that he placed Cheyenne in the Taurus on the morning of the accident," Newby wrote. "Gordon explained that Cheyenne was asleep when he put her in the vehicle and that he was the one who buckled her seat belt that morning."

Because of Gordon's testimony, the trial court's decision on the plaintiff's motion for directed verdict, the jury's verdict and the trial court's judgment applying 99B-3 can be sustained, the Court said, adding that the case be remanded to the Court of Appeals.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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