Verdict For Automotive Manufacturer Reversed Where Trial Judge Erred In Admitting Entire NHTSA Report

On Wednesday, the Court of Appeals of Missouri reversed a jury verdict in favor of an automotive manufacturer and remanded the case for a new trial.  In 2003, a Missouri state trooper was killed and a passenger in his car was severely injured when a truck driver veered onto the shoulder of the interstate and collided with the patrol car.  The fire began in the left rear fender, at the area where the fuel filler neck extended between the fuel fill door and the fuel tank.  The impact severed the filler neck, which allowed gasoline vapor to escape that was almost immediately ignited by the friction sparks from the impact.  The state trooper’s wife and the injured passenger brought claims against the truck driver’s employer and design defect claims against the automotive manufacturer on the basis that the design of the anti-spill valve, the placement of the fuel tank filler tube on the driver’s side, and the placement of the fuel tank behind the rear axle rendered the car unreasonably dangerous when put to its anticipated use.  The jury returned a verdict of $8.5 million against the truck driver’s employer but also found in favor of the automotive manufacturer on the design defect claims.

On appeal of the decision in favor of the automotive manufacturer, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the verdict because of an error made by the trial court in precluding the plaintiffs from arguing reasonable inferences from evidence the trial court mistakenly believed had not been admitted.  On remand, the trooper’s wife settled her claims, leaving only the claims of the injured passenger.  Following another trial, the jury again returned a verdict in favor of the automotive manufacturer.  That verdict was reversed and remanded this week by the Court of Appeals.  Specifically, the trial court had admitted a November 2001 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation report that concluded, among other things, that this particular vehicle’s failure modes were not unlike that of the most comparable peer vehicle.  The trial judge admitted the report under Missouri case-law interpreting Missouri’s public records statute for the admissibility of government reports.  The appellate court concluded, however, that the trial judge admitted the entire report without separately evaluating the report’s relevance, which was prejudicial error.  The report addressed multiple failure modes and uses and was not narrowly tied to the alleged defects or specific use in this case.  Even though the fact that the vehicle performed comparably to other sedans in crash testing may have been relevant to this particular government group’s report in determining whether to continue its defect inquiry, the court questioned its relevance to a strict products liability case involving the use of the car for law enforcement purposes on high-speed roadways.

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