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Bair v. American Motors Corp.

decided: January 22, 1973.

JOANNE BAIR, APPELLANT
v.
AMERICAN MOTORS CORPORATION



(D.C. Civil Action No. 68-166). APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA.

Staley, Gibbons and Rosen,*fn* Circuit Judges.

Author: Gibbons

Opinion OF THE COURT

GIBBONS, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment on a jury verdict in favor of the defendant American Motors Corporation. The plaintiff-appellant, Bair, was injured on October 26, 1966, when, in an automobile accident, she was ejected from an American Motors Rambler which she had purchased in August, 1966, from an America Motors' dealer. She sued American Motors on both negligence and strict liability theories, alleging that the defective design of the door latch on the Rambler failed to prevent the door from opening when the car was subjected to upward and longitudinal stresses in the accident, thus permitting her ejection and increasing her injuries.*fn1 Pennsylvania law governs liability.

The case was submitted to the jury on three interrogatories:

"1. Was plaintiff guilty of negligence which contributed to the happening of the collision between her Rambler and the Mustang?

2. Was defendant guilty of negligence in the design of the door latch on the 1966 Rambler?

3. Did defendant sell a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user when it sold the 1966 Rambler equipped with the door latch described in this case?"

To each interrogatory the jury answered no.

Bair contends on appeal that the negative answer to the second and third interrogatories are the product of trial errors, and that a new trial should be granted. The errors alleged consist (1) of a ruling as to the admissibility of the results of statistical studies conducted by Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, Inc., Automotive Crash Injury Research, offered during the testimony of the plaintiff's expert witness, Walter V. H. Pruyn; and (2) of allegedly disparaging treatment by the trial court of that witness.

Mr. Pruyn, an expert who gave opinion evidence, was the only liability witness for Bair, and American Motors did not put in any liability evidence. The district court held that plaintiff's liability case was sufficient to go to the jury. The jury, apparently, did not accept Pruyn's opinion. The excluded evidence was not cumulative of any other evidence in the case. Thus, if it was improperly excluded, and if it tended to support Pruyn's opinion, the error cannot be regarded as harmless.

The event was an intersection accident in which Bair's vehicle was struck on the left front fender by a vehicle travelling at 50 to 60 m.p.h. Pruyn's theory of the accident was that after the initial impact there was a second impact, as the two cars swerved from a right angle to a parallel alignment, in which the right rear of the striking vehicle struck the Rambler, and that following this impact the left front (driver's) door of the Rambler opened. As the Rambler continued to rotate Bair was ejected. Pruyn claimed that had the Rambler been equipped with door latches then used by other automobile manufacturers to prevent opening when the vehicle was subjected to upward and longitudinal stress such as occurred in the accident, Bair would not have been ejected.

The door latch of the Rambler was designed so that the bottom portion of the latch's ratchet wheel teeth, mounted on the door, was, when the door was closed, enclosed by a steel retaining plate affixed to the left door striker pillar. The upper portion and sides of the ratchet wheel were not so enclosed. Thus, when the door was subjected to upward and longitudinal stress which lifted the teeth of the ratchet wheel above and out from behind the steel retaining plate the door was free to open. To prevent this occurrence some manufacturers had as early as the 1961-62 model year equipped their doors with a T-head type bolt assembly in which, when the door was closed, the bolt was totally enclosed at the top, bottom and sides. Bair's claims, advanced through ...


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