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Conti, Patricia and Conti v. Ford Motor Co.

decided: September 17, 1984.

CONTI, PATRICIA AND CONTI, RICHARD, HUSBAND AND WIFE
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY AND WINNER FORD, J/S/A V. RICHARD CONTI; FORD MOTOR COMPANY, APPELLANT



Appeal From the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Gibbons, Hunter, and Sloviter, Circuit Judges

Author: Hunter

Opinion OF THE COURT

HUNTER, Circuit Judge:

This appeal arises from a jury verdict in favor of appellees Patricia and Richard Conti and against appellant Ford Motor Company ("Ford"). The district court, 578 F. Supp. 1429, denied Ford's post-trial motions for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial. Because we conclude that the district court erred in not granting judgment in Ford's favor on the failure-to-warn theory, we reverse the district court's denial of Ford's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and remand for an order entering judgment on all claims in Ford's favor.

I.

Patricia Conti sustained serious injuries when, as she was in the process of entering a 1980 Ford Mustang on the passenger side, her husband, appellee Richard Conti, turned the ignition key while the car was in gear without disengaging the clutch. Because the automobile was equipped with a standard transmission, Richard Conti's failure to disengage the clutch while starting the car in the reverse gear caused the car to lurch backwards. This lurching motion caused Patricia Conti to lose her balance and fall.

The Contis brought suit against Ford, seeking damages for Mrs. Conti's injuries sustained in the fall and for Mr. Conti's loss of consortium. Ford then joined Richard Conti as a third-party defendant, alleging that his negligence in starting the car while in gear and while the clutch was engaged was the cause-in-fact and proximate cause of Mrs. Conti's injuries, and thus that Ford was entitled to contribution from Mr. Conti.

The Contis' Complaint alleged that Ford was strictly liable for defective design and for failing to warn adequately of the dangers of starting a standard transmission car while in gear and while the clutch was engaged. The jury rejected the defective design claim, but found Ford liable on the failure-to-warn theory. The jury also found that Richard Conti was contributorially negligent, and that he was seventy-five percent responsible for the injuries suffered by Mrs. Conti. The jury awarded Mrs. Conti damages of $650,000 and Mr. Conti damages of $15,000, all against Ford.

The district court then entered judgment in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Conti for the amounts specified in the jury verdict. The district court also rejected Ford's arguments that Pennsylvania's comparative negligence and joint tortfeasors statutes accorded Ford the right of contribution from Mr. Conti, and thus entered judgment n.o.v. in favor of Mr. Conti on Ford's third-party claim. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. ยงยง 7102, 8321 (Purdon's 1982).

II.

In seeking review of the judgment below, Ford has raised many issues for our consideration. These issues include the propriety of certain jury instructions given by the district court, whether Ford had a duty to warn of the allegedly obvious danger of starting a standard transmission car in gear while the clutch is engaged, whether Ford's Owner's Manual contained adequate warnings of this danger, whether the lack of an adequate warning was the proximate cause of Mrs. Conti's injuries, and whether Ford is entitled to contribution from Mr. Conti in light of the jury's finding that he was seventy-five percent responsible for the harm caused Mrs. Conti. Because we find that the district court erred in submitting the causation issue to the jury, however, we need not address all of these issues. Rather, we hold that Ford is entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law because the Contis have failed to prove that the existence of any additional warning may have forestalled Mr. Conti's "momentary inadvertence," App. at 357, in failing to disengage the clutch while starting the car in gear.

The Pennsylvania courts have adopted section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which imposes strict liability on the seller of any product "in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer." See, e.g., Incollingo v. Ewing, 444 Pa. 263, 282 A.2d 206 (1971). Even if properly designed, a product may be in an unreasonably dangerous defective condition if its manufacturer fails to warn the user or consumer of latent dangers in the use or operation of the product. See, e.g., Sherk v. Daisy-Heddon, A Division of Victor Comptometer Corporation, 498 Pa. 594, 450 A.2d 615 (1982). Before strict liability will be imposed on a manufacturer for failure to warn adequately of such dangers was the cause-in-fact and proximate cause of his or her injuries. See, e.g., Greiner v. Volkswagenwerk Aktiengeselleschaft, 540 F.2d 85 (3d Cir. 1976).

Although the question of causation is normally for the jury, "if the relevant facts are not in dispute and the remoteness of the causal connection between the defendant's negligence and the plaintiff's injury clearly appears, the question becomes one of law." Greiner, 429 F. Supp. 495, 497 (E.D. Pa. 1977), on remand from 540 F.2d 85 (3d Cir. 1976) (quoting Liney v. Chestnut Motors, Inc., 421 Pa. 26, 29, 218 A.2d 336, 338 (1966)). Where the theory of liability is failure to warn adequately, the evidence must be such as to support a reasonable inference, rather ...


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