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WEAVER v. FORD MOTOR CO.

September 12, 1974

Robert T. WEAVER, Administrator of the Estate of Elizabeth Ann Weaver, Deceased, et al.
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY


Broderick, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: BRODERICK

BRODERICK, District Judge.

 In this products liability suit, following a jury verdict in favor of all plaintiffs and against defendant Ford Motor Company, Ford has moved for a new trial. After carefully considering all the grounds urged by defendant the Court has determined that it must deny the motion for a new trial.

 The death and injuries complained of in this lawsuit occurred as a result of a single vehicle accident which took place near Nairobi, Kenya, on September 9, 1966. Reverend Edward E. Weaver, a missionary on assignment to Kenya, was driving a 1963 eight-passenger Ford Econoline Van, in which his five children and two native missionary trainees were riding, when the vehicle left a four-lane highway and tumbled down a steep embankment. Elizabeth Ann Weaver, the five-year old daughter of Reverend Weaver, was killed, and Reverend Weaver and the two native missionary trainees were injured.

 Plaintiffs in the case are Robert T. Weaver, the Administrator of the Estate of Elizabeth Ann Weaver, suing under the Pennsylvania Survival Act; Reverend and Mrs. Weaver, suing pursuant to the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act; and Reverend Weaver, Richard Muumbi, and Stanley Njoroge suing on their own behalf.

 The plaintiffs alleged at trial that the accident occurred because the Ford van was defectively designed and/or manufactured, making it unreasonably dangerous to its intended users. Specifically, plaintiffs charged that, at the time of the accident, as a result of fatigue cracks in the frame, the van's weight was thrown onto the left front part of the vehicle causing a stress which was too great for the left front spring. Plaintiffs claimed that as a consequence one leaf of this spring snapped which added additional stress onto the stabilizer bar and stabilizer link. According to plaintiffs, a defective weld between the stabilizer bar and link failed to hold causing the stabilizer bar on the left side of the vehicle to fall and jam into the left front wheel preventing the turning of the steering wheel, and as a result the van went off the road and down the embankment. Plaintiffs asserted that if the U-Frames which were attached to the floor of the van had been properly designed and manufactured or if the stabilizer bar or link had been properly designed and manufactured, the steering wheel would not have locked and the accident would not have occurred.

 The issues of liability and damages were severed and the jury rendered a liability verdict in favor of all the plaintiffs and against the defendant. The jury then awarded damages in the amounts of $82,500 to the Administrator of the Estate of Elizabeth Ann Weaver, $5,000 to her parents under the Wrongful Death Act, $9000 to Edward E. Weaver for his own injuries, $4,250 to Richard Muumbi and $2500 to Stanley Njorode.

 Motion for New Trial

 The defendant Ford Motor Company asserts four grounds in support of its motion for a new trial. First, the defendant contends that the Court erred in excluding evidence of an experiment which defendant offered in order to disprove plaintiffs' allegations as to the cause of the accident. Second, the defendant claims error in the admission of certain actuarial testimony by one of the plaintiffs' expert witnesses. Third, the defendant urges a new trial on the ground that the verdicts in the survival and wrongful death actions were excessive. Finally, the defendant contends that the Court erred in failing to charge the jury, on the question of damages, as to the possibility that the deceased Elizabeth Weaver would have married and never earned any income so as to preclude an award under the Survival Act.

 Evidence of Defendant's Experiment

 Defendant's first contention is that the Court erred in excluding evidence of an experiment, conducted by one of defendant's employees, which was offered to disprove plaintiffs' allegations as to the cause of the accident. Defendant further contends that the Court's statements made to the jury in excluding this same evidence were erroneous and prejudicial.

 Mr. Stockman testified that his experiment showed that when the stabilizer bar was disconnected from the stabilizer link and, therefore, the axle, it remained in the same relative position with respect to the wheel. According to him, in either a rebound or full bump position the left front wheel would have to be displaced three and a half inches to the rear and two inches to the right before there could be any contact between the stabilizer bar and the wheel (N.T. 4-211, 212). Mr. Stockman had taken a number of photographs during the experiment which he offered to support his contentions. At this point the plaintiffs' attorney was permitted to cross-examine concerning the conditions under which the experiment was conducted. Upon cross-examination it became apparent that Mr. Stockman had conducted his experiment upon a 1963 Ford Econoline Van of a later model than the van involved in the accident. The later model had been redesigned to carry 2,000 pounds instead of the 1,400 pounds load weight assigned to the plaintiffs' model. Moreover, the experiment was conducted by hoisting the van and then maneuvering the wheels with hydraulic lifts. Thus, the experiment did not approximate the dynamic forces of plaintiffs' vehicle moving at 45 mph as was the situation at the time of the accident. Nor did the experiment take into account the conditions created by the fractured frame of plaintiffs' van. Cross-examination also revealed that the stabilizer bar on the van used in the experiment differed from the stabilizer bar on plaintiffs' vehicle in that it had a kink in it for the purpose of clearing the larger brake assembly of the Econoline Van used in the experiment.

 In view of the aforesaid differences between the experiment and the accident, the Court determined that the experiment was not "substantially similar" to the facts of the accident. Because of the confusing effect that such a dissimilar experiment might have had upon the jury, the Court granted plaintiffs' motion to strike all the testimony regarding the experiment. It is defendant's position ...


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