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BOWERSFIELD v. SUZUKI MOTOR CORP.

August 28, 2000

THOMAS J. BOWERSFIELD, JR., PLAINTIFF,
V.
SUZUKI MOTOR CORPORATION AND AMERICAN SUZUKI MOTOR CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS, V. CHRISTIAN FRENCH, THIRD PARTY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DuBOIS, District Judge.

  ORDER & MEMORANDUM

ORDER

AND NOW, to wit, this 28th day of August, 2000, upon consideration of the Joint Motion of Defendants Suzuki Motor Corporation and American Suzuki Motor Corporation for Summary Judgment (Doc. 40, filed Aug. 27, 1999), Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 41, filed Sept. 21, 1999), Defendants' Reply to Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 43, filed Oct. 7, 1999), and related submissions; IT IS ORDERED that the Joint Motion of Defendants Suzuki Motor Corporation and American Suzuki Motor Corporation for Summary Judgment is DENIED.

MEMORANDUM

I. FACTS

This case arises out of an automobile accident which occurred in the early morning hours of March 10, 1996 at the intersection of 7th and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At that time plaintiff, Thomas J. Bowersfield, Jr. and two companions were traveling west on Spruce Street in a 1992 Suzuki Samurai (the "Samurai"). Another vehicle, traveling north on 7th Street, collided with the Samurai and sped away.

Christian French, who owned the Samurai and is a third-party defendant in this action, was driving the Samurai. Brian Farnham was seated in the right front bucket seat of the vehicle. Neither French nor Farnham was wearing a seat belt. Plaintiff was riding unrestrained on the uncarpeted floor in the cargo area at the rear of the Samurai.

The point of impact on the Samurai was the left rear quarter panel. As a result of the impact, the Samurai careened out of control, first spinning counterclockwise and striking a traffic signal pole and then spinning clockwise, striking another pole before coming to rest facing in a northeasterly direction on Spruce Street.

Plaintiff was ejected from the vehicle as a result of the collision. He sustained severe permanent injuries, including brain injury, facial fractures, blindness to the right eye and facial paralysis.

The Samurai was designed and manufactured by defendant Suzuki Motor Corporation ("SMC"), a Japanese auto manufacturer; in the United States it was distributed by defendant American Suzuki Motor Corporation ("ASMC"), a California corporation. Since its introduction in 1985 and through 1991, the Samurai was designed, manufactured and distributed in the United States primarily as a four passenger "car." Four seats, with lap belts for the rear occupants, were provided with the vehicle as standard equipment. For a number of years beginning in 1985 defendant SMC's advertisements regularly depicted people riding in the rear compartment, behind the driver and the front passengers. No evidence was presented as to the duration of this advertising campaign.

By 1992 defendant SMC faced constraints in the number of cars that it could import to the U.S. by virtue of an import quota mandated under the Japanese Voluntary Export Restraint; there was no such restriction with respect to trucks. Also, new federal regulations were passed in 1992 requiring lap and shoulder belt restraints in the rear passenger compartment of all sport/utility vehicles ("SUVs") sold in the U.S. See 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 (1992).

In response to these pressures, defendant SMC redesigned the Samurai for the U.S. market, converting it from a permanent four-seater into a vehicle with the option of being configured as a four-seater, or a two-seater with a rear cargo area. The redesigned Samurai was sold with mounting holes in the rear cargo area so that consumer's who wanted four-seats could purchase a parts kit separately and have the rear seats installed.

When configured as a two-seater with a rear cargo area, the redesigned Samurai resembled a small pick-up truck. Unlike a pick-up truck, however, the Samurai did not have a physical barrier to separate the front seats from the rear cargo area. Defendants never marketed the Samurai as a pick-up truck.

Beginning with the 1992 model year, defendant SMC added a warning label in the rear cargo area of the Samurai. The warning was located on the left rear wheel well, approximately 1-1/4 inches above the cargo bed, and was approximately 2.4 x 2.8 inches in size. It read as follows:

WARNING!

This vehicle is designed to carry a maximum of two persons (The driver and one front seat passenger)
— Do not ride as a passenger in the rear of this vehicle or you could suffer severe injury or death in the event of an accident, abrupt maneuver, etc.
— Do not modify this vehicle to accommodate additional passengers.

On the morning of March 9, 1996, plaintiff had been a licensed driver for seven years. He testified that he was in the habit of buckling his seat belt for general safety when riding in motor vehicles and he admitted noticing that the rear cargo area lacked rear seats and contained no passenger restraint system. Nevertheless, plaintiff voluntarily chose to ride in the rear cargo area of the Samurai.

Plaintiff testified that he did not specifically recall whether or not he had seen the Samurai's warning label. However, he also stated that if he had noticed such a warning, or if there had been a physical divider between the front seats and the rear cargo area, he would have "made other plans — decided not to sit there and made other plans, taken another vehicle."

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff originally filed this action in state court. On February 27, 1998 defendants SMC and ASMC removed to this Court, based on diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1332 (West 2000). On June 8, 1998 Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint (Doc. 13), and on July 1, 1998 he filed a Second Amended Complaint (the "Second Amended Complaint") (Doc. 15). The Second Amended Complaint contains two counts. In Count One plaintiff asserts a claim in strict product liability under Restatement (Second) of Torts: § 402A (1965)*fn1. In Count Two plaintiff asserts a claim of breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.

On July 15, 1998 Christian French was joined as a third party defendant in this action by defendant ASMC (Doc. 19). On that date defendants SMC and ASMC filed separate answers to plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint with affirmative defenses; defendant SMC's answer included a cross-claim against Christian French (Docs. 17 and 18).

Plaintiff moved to dismiss defendant SMC's third party complaint on July 31, 1998 (Doc. 21). On December 28, 1998, following oral argument, that motion was granted with respect to defendants' claims that Christian French was solely liable to plaintiff, and defendants' claims for indemnification and equitable subrogation, but was denied in all other respects (Doc. 33). By stipulation between plaintiff and defendants SMC and ASMC, Count Two of the Second Amended Complaint for breach of implied warranty was dismissed with prejudice on July 22, 1998 (Doc. 20).

After completing discovery, defendants SMC and ASMC filed a joint motion for summary judgment on August 27, 1999 (Doc. 40). Plaintiff filed his opposition to defendants' joint motion on September 21, 1999 (Doc. 41). Defendants filed a reply on October 7, 1999 (Doc. 43). It is defendants' joint motion for summary judgment that is presently before the Court.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

"If the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law[,]" summary judgment shall be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the evidence must be considered in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress and Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). However, the party opposing summary judgment "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Therefore, "[i]f the evidence [offered by the nonmoving party] is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). On the other hand, if reasonable minds can differ as to the import of the evidence presented that speaks to an issue of material fact, summary judgment should not be granted.

IV. PENNSYLVANIA STRICT PRODUCT LIABILITY LAW

This is a strict product liability case arising out of an automobile accident occurring in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania ...


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