Carrasquilla and Argenix Suarez failed to use
the Protégé's manual lap belt and Ana Carrasquilla was
unbelted — in the context of plaintiffs' crashworthiness claim. In
support thereof, defendants submit that courts of other jurisdictions
have found evidence of plaintiffs' non-use of a seat belt admissible in
crashworthiness cases. The court, however, finds unpersuasive the cases
cited by defendants.
For example, the court finds unpersuasive defendants' reliance on the
following: DePaepe v. General Motors Corp., 33 F.3d 737 (7th Cir. 1994)
(finding seat belt evidence admissible for limited purpose to show that
vehicle at issue was equipped with functional restraint system); Barron
v. Ford Motor Co. of Canad Ltd., 965 F.2d 195 (7th Cir. 1992) (finding
North Carolina statute making evidence of failure to use seat belt
inadmissible inapplicable to defendant manufacturer's evidence that
vehicle was equipped with seat belts, offered to show that manufacturer
had been reasonable in deciding not to make sunroof out of laminated
glass); LaHue v. General Motors Corp. 716 F. Supp. 407 (W.D.Mo. 1989)
(holding that plain meaning of state statute specifying sorts of cases in
which evidence of failure to use seat belts is inadmissible compelled
conclusion that statute was not intended to apply to products liability
case as that type of case was not specified in statute); and Wilson v.
Volkswagon of Am., Inc., 445 F. Supp. 1368 (E.D.Va. 1978) (holding that
evidence of plaintiff's, failure to wear seat belt could be considered
for purposes of mitigation of damages)*fn2
Given the plain language of § 4581, its literal meaning will be
applied. Accordingly, we hold that evidence pertaining to the failure of
Marco Carrasquilla and Argenix Suarez to utilize the manual lap belt
available in the Mazda Protégé at issue must be excluded.
Additionally, given the holding in Nicola, 673 A.2d 912, defendants may
not introduce evidence of the failure of the rear seat passenger, Ana
Carrasquilla, to wear her seat belt.
Defendants next contend that evidence of the existence of a manual lap
belt in the Protégé is necessary to an adequate defense of
their product, stating: "Plaintiffs cannot attack the design of the
restraint system under a crashworthiness theory witnout permitting the
Mazda defendants to present evidence of the entire system."
Notably, defendants' contention is deemed moot, given the court's
memorandum and order #1, dated September 25, 2001, ruling on defendants'
motion for summary judgment (record doc. no. 446) There, we found
plaintiffs' defective design claim regarding the Protégés
lack of an integrated automatic lap belt preempted by Geier, 529 U.S. 861,
as it specifically challenged one of the restraint system options
provided to defendants under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 and
thus presented an actual conflict with federal law. Since plaintiffs
cannot pursue this claim, it is unnecessary for defendants to present
manual lap belt evidence in defense of a now non-existent allegation of a
defect in the design of the Protégé's restraint system.
Given the court's ruling on defendants' motion for summary judgment,
plaintiffs are unable to present a design defect claim pertaining to the
restraint system utilized by defendants, but are able to pursue defective
design claims pertaining to the
allegedly inadequate seat back, seat
track mechanism and knee bolsters. The court finds evidence of the
existence of manual seat belts irrelevant to those claims, and will
preclude the evidence under Fed. R. Evid. 402.*fn3 Indeed, we believe
that defendants will adequately be able to defend plaintiffs' remaining
claims and, likewise, plaintiffs will be able to outline those claims,
without any specific reference to the existence of the manual lap belts.
Moreover, public policy concerns and Fed. R. Evid. 403 provide
additional bases for the exclusion of evidence that the
Protégé was equipped with manual lap belts. Specifically,
in this case, "[h]earing evidence on the existence of [manual lap
belts]", along with evidence of the severity of the injuries suffered by
plaintiffs and decedent and the alleged design defects pertaining to the
seat back, seat track mechanism and knee bolster, "would almost certainly
lead the jury to the unspoken conclusion that [Marco Carrasquilla and
Argenix Suarez] w[ere] not wearing [their manual lap belts]." Russo v.
Mazda Motor Corp., Civ.A. No. 89-7995, 1992 WL 21023, at *2 (E.D.Pa.
Aug. 17, 1992). Because the Pennsylvania legislature, in enacting §
4581(e), "has expressed a strong public policy concern that evidence of
the failure to use a seat belt not be introduced against a plaintiff in a
civil action," see id., "[a]llowing defendant[s] to introduce evidence of
the existence of the [manual lap belts] implicates this important public
policy concern." Id. "Given the dictates of 75 [Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann.]
§ 4581(e), the probative value of evidence of the existence of the
seat belt system would be substantially outweighed by the danger of
unfair prejudice to [p]laintiff[s], confusion of the issues, and
misleading the jury." Id.
Accordingly, there is adequate basis to exclude evidence of the
existence of the manual lap belts available in the 1994
It is unnecessary for the court to credit plaintiffs' statement that
they will not pursue their failure to warn claim, "involving the
contention that the instructions and warnings did not adequately explain
the importance of the lap belt in minimizing the danger to the front seat
passengers," given the courts' September 25, 2001 order (#1) ruling on
defendants' summary judgment moton, finding that precise claim
2. Due Process
Defendants argue that a literal application of § 4581(e) to this
crashworthiness case will deprive them of their right to due process of
law. Defendants claim that § 4581(e) violates their due process
rights by precluding evidence necessary for them to proceed with "a fair
jury trial." Specifically, defendants contend that precluding evidence of
the existence of manual lap belts and evidence of seat belt non-use
prevents them from proving that the vehicle was crashworthy.
As discussed above, plaintiffs are no longer able to pursue their claim
that there was a design defect with the restraint system in the
Protégé given the holding in Geier and the court's
subsequent ruling on defendans' summary judgment motion. Instead,
plaintiffs are pursuing design defect claims relating to the lack of
adequate seat back, seat track mechanism and knee bolsters, Therefore,
evidence of seat belt non-use and the existence of manual lap belts is
irrelevant to a
decision on liability for the remaining design defects
asserted by plaintiffs. See Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., No. Civ.A. 94-2579,
1996 WL 639832, at *7 (E.D.Pa. Oct. 29, 1996). To the extent that
plaintiffs' design defect claim pertaining to the allegedly inadequate
seat back of Argenix Suarez's seat asserts that it was defective in that
it was not "strong enough to withstand impact of [a] back seat
passenger," the court agrees with plaintiffs that "[t]he fact that Ana's
unrestrained body impacted the rear of the front passenger's seat back
and may or may not have affected the jury mechanisms operating on Argenix
Suarez [sic] can be presented to the jury without any mention of the
existence of the seat belt." Similarly, any arguments can be made without
reference by either party to the existence of manual lap belts and the
lack of use of those belts by Marco Carrasquilla and Argenix Suarez.
Defendants also apply a rational basis analysis to their challenge to
§ 4581(e), baldly asserting that "[t]here is no legitimate
governmental interest in restricting the right of a litigant to defend a
civil action." Defendants base their challenge almost entirely on their
claim that, "[i]n any crashworthiness case, and particularly in one where
the claimed defact is in the design of the occupant restraint system,
exclusion of evidence of that system's various components carrie. out no
legitimate governmental interest."
Defendants are correct to apply a rational basis standard of review to
their due process challenge. See Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 1996 WL
639832, at *4 ("Having found that neither a fundamental nor important
right is implicated by the evidentiary preclusion in § 4581(e), a
rational basis standard of review is applicable for a due process
analysis."). The court too, will engage in such analysis. In so doing, we
find that defendants are incorrect to conclude that § 4581(e) does
not further a legitimate state interest.
Pennsylvania courts employ a two-step approach under a rational basis
est. Id. at *5 "In order to pass constitutional muster the challenged
statute must: first, further any legitimate state interest or public
value; and second, reasonably relate to accomplish the articulated state
interest or public value." Id. (citing Curtis v. Kline, 666 A.2d 265, 269
(Pa. 1995); Commonwealth v. Burnsworth, 669 A.2d 883, 889 (Pa. 1995);
Plowman v. Commonwealth Dept of Trans. Bureau of Driver Licensing,
635 A.2d 124, 127 (Pa. 1993)) (further citation omitted)
The court in Kelly held that § 4581(e) passed constitutional
muster under a rational basis review, finding that the Pennsylvania
"legislature's concomitant goals of promoting safety through seat belt
use and not denying recovery for injured plaintiffs . . . § 4581(e)
bear[s] a reasonable relationship to the legislative purpose of the
statue as a whole." Id. at *6. Specifically, the court found that:
Taken as a whole § 4581 represents a legislative
balance between the imposition of a seat belt mandate
and permitting recovery for victims. When it mandate
seat belt compliance, the Pennsylvania legislature
clearly sought to protect drivers and passengers
travelling [sic] along Pennsylvania roads and
highways. However, the legislature understood that
this protection should not end upon noncompliance.
(footnote omitted]. The evidentiary preclusion in
subsection (e) of seat belt non-use further protects
drivers and passengers, by allowing them to seek
recovery unimpeded by the seat belt defense when they
are injured in an accident. A rational policy would be
that noncompliance with the seat belt warrants
punishment through fines, but not the harsh
denying or severely limiting an injured plaintiff's
recovery. [footnote omitted].
An additional rational basis for the legislation is
grounded in the concepts behind Federal Rule of
Evidence 403. In many cases, evidence of seat belt
non use would be unfairly prejudicial and therefore
outweigh any probative value it may have. The
admission of such evidence would complicate factual
issues for the trial judge and the jury since the issue
of whether the failure to use the restraint caused or
contributed injury or death is always problematic and
the proofs often weak or confusing. The Pennsylvania
legislature could rationally have recognized this
potential prejudice when it enacted subsection (e)
along side the seat belt mandate.
Id. at *5 For the reasons stated in Kelly, we, too, find that §
4581(e) passes constitutional muster under a rational basis review.
Accordingly, we do not find that § 4581(e) violates defendants'
right to due process.
Based on the foregoing, defendants' motion in limine to permit evidence
related to the availability and lack of use of manual safety belts will
An appropriate order will issue.
O R D E R (#2)
For the reasons stated in the accompanying memorandum, IT IS ORDERED
Defendants' Motion to Permit Evidence Related to the Availability and
Lack of Use of Manual Safety Belts (record doc. no. 351) is denied.