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Parr v. Ford Motor Co.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

January 15, 2014

JOSEPH AND APRIL PARR, HUSBAND AND WIFE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS OF SAMANTHA PARR, Appellants
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, McCAFFERTY FORD SALES, INC. d/b/a McCAFFERTY AUTO GROUP, McCAFFERTY FORD OF MECHANICSBURG, INC., AND McCAFFERTY FORD COMPANY, Appellees

Appeal from the Judgment Entered August 31, 2012, In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Civil Division, at No. 002893, December Term, 2009.

BEFORE: SHOGAN, WECHT & COLVILLE, [*] JJ.

OPINION

SHOGAN, J.

Plaintiffs-Appellants, Joseph and April Parr ("the Parrs"), husband and wife, individually and as parents and guardians of their minor daughter, Samantha Parr, appeal from the August 31, 2012 judgment of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, which was entered following the denial of the Parrs' motion for post-trial relief. Appellees are Defendants Ford Motor Company, McCafferty Ford Sales, Inc. doing business as McCafferty Auto Group, McCafferty Ford of Mechanicsburg, Inc., and McCafferty Ford Company (collectively "Ford"). We affirm.

The Parrs sued Ford Motor Company and the Ford dealership that sold them their 2001 Ford Excursion, alleging that the vehicle's roof and restraint system were defectively designed under the crashworthiness doctrine of strict products liability, and asserting additional claims sounding in negligence. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11. The Parrs bought their vehicle as a "used" car in 2007. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶ 14. On July 21, 2009, the Parrs' Excursion was struck by a van that ran a stop sign, causing the Parrs' vehicle to spin clockwise, hit a guardrail, and roll down a nineteen-foot embankment. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶¶ 26–28; N.T., 3/8/12, at 30.

Joseph Parr was driving at the time of the accident; his wife, April Parr, their three minor children, and Margaret Parr, Joseph's mother, were occupants of the vehicle. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶¶ 20–25; N.T., 3/8/12, at 31. All passengers, who all wore their seatbelts, were injured; occupants on the driver's side of the vehicle, Joseph Parr and children Tyler and Carilann Parr, sustained minor injuries. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶¶ 20–25, 31. Margaret Parr, who sat in the second row, is not involved in this case, and her injuries were not identified in the amended complaint. Daughter Samantha, who was sitting in the third row on the passenger side, sustained a fractured skull, broken collarbone, fractured eye orbital, a lacerated liver, and facial lacerations. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶ 30. April Parr, sitting in the front passenger seat, sustained a spinal cord injury and was rendered a quadriplegic. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶ 29; N.T., 3/8/12, at 33. The Parrs contended that April Parr's and Samantha Parr's injuries resulted from roof crush when the automobile rolled down the embankment. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶¶ 28, 40.

Emergency responders employed the jaws of life to extract April Parr from the Excursion; during that process, the roof and pillar structures of the vehicle were destroyed. N.T., 3/9/12 (Afternoon Session), at 35–38. The parties stipulated that shortly after the accident in July 2009, the Parrs' Ford Excursion was released to the Parrs' insurer, which sold the vehicle, and the automobile was destroyed. N.T., 3/15/12 (Morning Session), at 30–31. The Parrs filed a complaint on December 28, 2009, and an amended complaint on August 26, 2011.

Trial in the matter commenced on March 6, 2012, and continued over the ensuing three weeks, culminating on March 23, 2012, with a defense verdict. The jury indicated on the verdict form that the Parrs did not prove: (1) that the Excursion's roof design was defective when it "left the control of Ford and that there was an alternative, safer design that was practicable under the circumstances, " or (2) that Ford was negligent in its design of the roof structure on the 2001 Ford Excursion when it left Ford's control and that there was an alternative, safer design that was practicable under the circumstances." Jury Verdict Form, 3/23/12, at ¶¶ 1, 3. The jury thus did not reach the issues of causation or damages.

The Parrs filed post-trial motions on March 29, 2012. Both parties filed briefs, and the trial court denied the motions on August 31, 2012, entering judgment in favor of Ford that day. This timely appeal followed on September 10, 2012, in which the Parrs challenge several pretrial evidentiary rulings and an aspect of the trial court's charge to the jury. Both the trial court and the Parrs complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

The Parrs raise the same four issues in this appeal that they identified in their Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statement, which are as follows:

A. Whether the Trial Court committed an error of law and abused its discretion when it denied the Parrs' Motion in Limine No. 1 to preclude Ford from presenting evidence of its "diving, " "torso augmentation" theory, which was discredited and superseded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)'s Final Rule dated May 12, 2009?
B. Whether the Trial Court committed an error of law and abused its discretion when it granted Ford's Motion in Limine No. 3 to preclude references to post-2001 NHTSA standards and rulemaking documents dated 2001 to present, on the basis that the Excursion was originally manufactured and sold in 2001?
C. Whether the Trial Court committed an error of law and abused its discretion when it granted Ford's Motion in Limine No. 9 and altogether precluded the Parrs from offering statistical evidence prepared by NHTSA, IIHS, FARS, and/or NASS as to rollover fatalities involving the 2001 Excursion and comparable vehicles on the basis that the Parrs were unable to prove that the statistics derived from other rollover accidents that [sic] were virtually identical to the subject accident?
D. Whether the Trial Court committed an error of law and abused its discretion when it denied the Parrs' Motion in Limine No. 10 to preclude Ford from: (a) presenting-and consequently filling the record with-evidence that the 2001 Excursion was not preserved; and (b) obtaining a spoliation charge when Ford suffered no prejudice resulting from the vehicle's destruction since neither party's experts had access to the vehicle and since Ford's theory was based upon the assumption that all occupants in rollover vehicles are injured in the same way?

The Parrs' Brief at 7–8.

We note initially that our Supreme Court adopted section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts in Webb v. Zern, 220 A.2d 853 (1966). Section 402A states:

§ 402A Special Liability of Seller of Product for Physical Harm to User or Consumer
(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property if
(a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and
(b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.
(2)The rule stated in Subsection (1) applies although
(a) the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product, and
(b) the user or consumer has not bought the product from or entered into any contractual relation with the seller.[1]

Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 402A (1965).[2]

In order to prevail in such a product liability case, the plaintiff must establish: (1) that the product was defective; (2) that the defect existed when it left the hands of the defendant; and (3) that the defect caused the harm. Reott v. Asia Trend, Inc., 7 A.3d 830 (Pa. Super. 2010). A product is defective when it is lacking "any element necessary to make it safe for its intended use or possessing any [element] that renders it unsafe for the intended use." Azzarello v. Black Brothers Company Inc., 391 A.2d 1020, 1027 (Pa. 1978).

The crashworthiness doctrine most typically arises in the context of motor vehicle accidents. See, e.g., Raskin v. Ford Motor Co., 837 A.2d 518 (Pa. Super. 2003). It was first explicitly recognized as a specific subset of product liability law by this Court in Kupetz v. Deere & Co., Inc., 644 A.2d 1213 (1994), and is defined as "the protection that a motor vehicle affords its passenger against personal injury or death as a result of a motor vehicle accident." Id. at 1218.

A crashworthiness claim requires proof of three elements. First, the plaintiff must prove that the design of the vehicle was defective, and that at the time of design an alternative, safer, and practicable design existed that could have been incorporated instead. Id. Second, the plaintiff must identify those injuries he or she would have received if the alternative design had instead been used. Id. Third, the plaintiff must demonstrate what injuries were attributable to the defective design. Id.
In recognizing the crashworthiness doctrine in Kupetz, this Court relied upon our Supreme Court's prior decision in McCown v. International Harvester Co., 463 Pa. 13, 342 A.2d 381 (1975), which adopted the principle tenet of the crashworthiness doctrine, i.e., manufacturers are strictly liable for defects that do not cause the accident but nevertheless cause an increase in the severity of injuries that would have occurred without the defect.

Gaudio v. Ford Motor Company, 976 A.2d 524, 532 (Pa. Super. 2009).

The parties herein differed regarding how the injuries to the Parrs occurred. The Parrs asserted that as the Excursion rolled down the embankment, the driver's side led the roll, and the roof over the "trailing" passenger side of the vehicle crushed into the passenger compartment. Amended Complaint, 8/26/11, at ¶ 27, 28. In support, the Parrs noted that the three occupants on the passenger side of the vehicle sustained significant injuries, whereas the passengers on the driver's side of the Excursion incurred minor injuries.

Ford's position was premised on a "diving" and "torso augmentation" defense. Ford's experts opined that when the Excursion flipped upside down, centrifugal force pulled passengers out of their seats and pushed their heads against the vehicle's roof, a phenomenon called diving. N.T., 3/7/12 (Morning Session), at 36–38. April Parr's head theoretically was already in contact with the roof when the roof struck the ground as the vehicle rolled over; as her head came to an abrupt halt, her torso continued to move, causing her to break her neck. Id. This phenomenon is known as torso augmentation. Id. at 38. Mr. Michael Leigh, an expert for Ford whom the Parrs called on cross-examination, explained Ford's theory regarding why April Parr sustained significant injuries compared to Joseph Parr, as follows:

Q. Well, they [Joseph and April] both rolled over, they both were subjected to centrifugal force. But if you looked at that roof, the roof over April Parr had what we call crush or deformation of a total residual of 11 inches; is that right?
A. I know that the roof was significantly deformed on that side of the vehicle. And that means that that part of the roof sustained a significant impact.
And if the other side of the roof was not deformed like that, that means that side of the roof did not sustain a significant impact.
And if the roof over Mr. Parr did not sustain a significant impact, then I'm not surprised that he did not get injured.
But I would not be surprised at all that his head did touch the roof in that event because if he's that tall and experiencing centrifugal force, his head is going to touch the roof, as well. He was just fortunate enough not to experience the impact that, unfortunately, his wife experienced.
Q. And you're saying it didn't come about from this 11 inches of crush or deformation? It just came from centrifugal force; right?
A. The deformation is an indication of the severity of the impact that that part of the roof experienced.
The injury that Mrs. Parr received is an indication of the severity of the impact that she experienced being in the same place as that part of the roof. So her injury and the deformation are associated with the impact, but it doesn't mean that the deformation of the roof caused her injury. You can't go that far.
All you can say is that the deformation and the injury are associated with the impact. And Mr. Parr didn't experience that severe of ...

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