The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Walker v. Ford Motor Co. on Thursday, September 10, 2015.
Injury—Design Defect—Automobile—Jury Instruction—Consumer Expectation Test—Evidence—Causation—Other Incidents.
In this products liability action based on strict liability and negligence, defendant Ford Motor Company (Ford) appealed the trial court’s judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of plaintiff Walker. Walker claimed to have sustained a traumatic brain injury and soft tissue neck injuries as a result of a car accident, in part because the driver’s seat in his 1998 Ford Explorer was defectively designed.
On appeal, Ford argued that the trial court’s instruction number 19 to the jury, which discusses the “consumer expectation” test, was incorrect as a matter of law. Jury instruction number 19 complied with Colorado Jury Instruction (CJI)-Civ. 4th 14:3 (2015). However, the first sentence of CJI-Civ. 4th 14:3 misapplies Colorado law. Further, because the consumer expectation test is included in the risk-benefit test instruction that was given to the jury as instruction number 19, the trial court erred by giving a separate instruction that also included the consumer expectation test. The combined instructions allowed the jury to consider the consumer expectation test twice: once in the risk-benefit test in instruction number 18, and again in instruction number 19. The consumer expectation test is not an alternative test to the risk-benefit test, but is a sub-part of that test. Because the error was not harmless, the judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.
Ford also contended that Walker’s defect and causation evidence was insufficient. Lewis, a biomechanical engineer and expert on injury causation, testified that, if Walker’s seat back had remained upright in the accident and the seat had had an adequate headrest, Walker would not have sustained any of his more significant injuries. Walker also presented testimony of Lewis and engineer Brown to show that an alternative design could have provided better protection than the seat in Walker’s Explorer. The jury could have concluded from Lewis’s and Brown’s testimony that an alternative design was available that could have prevented Walker’s injuries, and that the Explorer’s car seat was defectively designed. The evidence also allowed the jury to determine that the car seat was the cause of Walker’s injuries. Because there was competent evidence to support the verdict, Ford was not entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
Ford further contended that the trial court erred by permitting Walker to introduce evidence of other incidents involving Ford vehicles. Evidence of similar accidents, occurrences, or injuries may be offered to refute testimony that a given product was designed without safety hazards. Evidence of prior similar incidents is relevant to show that the manufacturer had notice of an actual or potential product defect. Here, the four vehicles in the other incidents were all Ford Explorers and all appeared to have involved the same or similar seat design as the seat in Walker’s Explorer. Though Ford points to differences in the types of accidents and injuries in those other incidents, those differences went only to the weight to be given to the evidence, and not to its admissibility. Therefore, it was not error to admit this evidence of other incidents.