McClanahan

RICHMOND, Va. (Legal Newsline) - The Virginia Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that a circuit court was wrong to exclude some evidence of other Ford Windstar minivan fires in a wrongful death case against the company.

The Court, in its June 7 ruling, held that the Albemarle County Circuit Court erred in its application of state law and in excluding evidence of four similar van fires.

However, it held evidence of three other fires was "inadmissible" and said plaintiff Steven Funkhouser's expert witnesses cannot refer to them during their direct testimony.

Funkhouser sued Ford Motor Company and Obaugh Ford Inc. after his daughter, Emily, died from severe burns she suffered when the family's Windstar minivan caught fire.

On May 4, 2006, Emily -- who was 3 years old at the time -- was inside her parents' 2001 Ford Windstar minivan, which was parked in the driveway of their home, when a fire erupted within the vehicle.

Emily suffered third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body and later died at the University of Virginia Hospital.

At the time of the fire, the minivan's engine was not in operation, and there was no key in the ignition.

Funkhouser contends the fire was electrical in nature and originated in the dash unit of the minivan.

In particular, his theory of liability is that Ford knew or had reason to know of the dangerous condition of "key-off dash area electrical fires" but failed to warn Funkhouser of this danger.

Funkhouser alleges that seven other Windstar van fires -- of which Ford had knowledge prior to his own -- placed the company on notice of the dangerous condition of key-off electrical dashboard fires in the line of minivans.

Ford filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of the seven other fires because they did not occur under "substantially similar circumstances" as the Funkhouser fire and were not caused by the same or substantially similar defects and dangers as alleged in the Funkhouser fire.

Although the circuit court found the seven other fires occurred under substantially similar circumstances as the Funkhouser fire since they occurred "while the vehicles were stationary and no key was in the ignition," the court concluded the other Windstar fires were not caused by the same or similar defects and dangers as those alleged to have caused the Funkhouser fire.

On appeal, Funkhouser argues that the circuit court erred in issuing an order excluding all seven previous Windstar van fires as evidence.

In its 25-page opinion, the Court majority said the lower court erred in "framing the issue before it" as whether Ford should be charged with notice and knowledge of a defective condition requiring warning of that condition.

"Although the circuit court found the other Windstar van fires occurred under substantially the same circumstances because the vans were stationary and no key was in the ignition, the court concluded that the specific defect alleged to have caused the Funkhouser fire was not described with sufficient specificity to show the other Windstar van fires were caused by the same or similar defects and dangers as the Funkhouser fire," Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan wrote for the majority.

Ruling that the Funkhouser van's defect must be "identified with specificity to charge Ford with actual notice of that defect," the circuit court concluded the required specificity was absent such that it was "not fair" to charge the company with notice of a defective condition.

"The issue before the court, however, was whether the other Windstar van fires occurred 'under substantially the same circumstances' and were caused by 'the same or similar defects and dangers' as those alleged in the Funkhouser fire," McClanahan wrote.

"The defect and danger alleged by Funkhouser is the potential for key-off electrical dashboard fires. Whether the Funkhouser minivan is unreasonably dangerous and whether Ford knew or should have known of the unreasonably dangerous condition are essential elements of Funkhouser's failure to warn claim and were not proper issues for the court to resolve on Ford's motion to exclude evidence of the other Windstar van fires."

The majority determined that four of the seven previous fires can be admitted as evidence.

All four, it noted, occurred when the vans were parked, not in operation and with no key in the ignition.

"The cause and origin of each of the fires was professionally investigated and determined to be electrical in nature, to have originated in the dashboard area of the vans, and to have been caused by the failure of electrical wiring or components within the dashboard area," McClanahan wrote.

"Since Funkhouser claims that his minivan was unreasonably dangerous for its intended use due to the danger of key-off electrical dashboard fires, evidence of these four Windstar van fires is admissible to prove Ford had notice and actual knowledge of the danger of key-off electrical dashboard fires."

However, the other three fires cannot, the majority said.

"While these fires occurred when the vans were not in operation and with no key in the ignition, there is no evidence of any investigation into the cause or origin of these fires," McClanahan wrote.

While the plaintiff's expert witnesses cannot refer to the three fires, they can discuss the other four, the majority also ruled.

Since summary judgment was entered upon stipulation by the parties as a result of the circuit court's evidentiary rulings -- some of which were found by the state's high court to be made in error -- the majority reversed the judgment and remanded the case.

Justice Cleo E. Powell, joined by Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser and Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn, dissented.

Powell noted that Funkhouser amended his initial complaint, which asserted a design defect claim, in order to substitute a failure to warn cause of action because he realized that he could not definitively prove that the fire in his Windstar was caused by a faulty cigarette lighter.

"Because Funkhouser cannot show what defect caused the fire in his Windstar, he necessarily cannot show that the defect in the other Windstars were similar," the justice wrote.

"Even if he could pinpoint the defect that caused the fire in his Windstar, the evidence regarding the cause of all seven of the other fires is inconclusive."

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

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