The accident giving rise to this cause of action occurred on November 9th, 1966, on Route 130 in Mercer County, New Jersey. The north and south bound lanes of this road are separated by a grass median strip. There are, however, paved intervals in this median strip which permit motorists to execute U-turns in order to reverse their direction. Moments prior to the accident here, Cathryn H. Rajeski made such a U-turn, driving her husband's 1964 Chrysler Imperial into the righthand southbound lane. Mr. Yetter's 1965 Volkswagen "Beetle" sedan immediately thereafter crashed into the rear of the Rajeski vehicle, and the resulting impact caused his chest to collide with the vehicle's steering assembly.
Mr. Yetter was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Trenton, where, following treatment, his condition appeared to have stabilized; however, on November 12th, 1966, his condition suddenly worsened, and he died. An autopsy revealed that Mr. Yetter had thirteen fractured ribs and disclosed other conditions secondary thereto, including a hemothorax, which caused his death. None of Mr. Yetter's vital organs, including his heart and lungs, however, had been damaged.
Following the institution of this suit, the plaintiff's claim against the Rajeskis was settled for $76,500.00.
This case, as to the remaining defendants, was tried before a jury. At the conclusion of the plaintiff's case, the defendants -- in effect -- renewed an earlier motion they had made for summary judgment, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, and moved, further, for a directed verdict, Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. The following represents my resolution of those motions.
The plaintiff's thesis here rests on what has come to be known as the "crashworthiness" doctrine, or the "second accident" theory, premised essentially on the holding in Larsen v. General Motors, 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968). The Larsen court held that the car manufacturer's duty under general negligence principles to design a product which is safe for "normal" use extends to the situation where the vehicle is involved in a collision. Thus, even though no defect in manufacture or design causes the initial accident, the manufacturer can be held liable for "enhanced" injuries -- those which would not have occurred absent an "unreasonably dangerous" design. The question of whether a particular design is "unreasonably dangerous" is, said the court, a question for the jury. The defendants deny that the Larsen case is controlling in New Jersey and insist that Evans v. General Motors, 359 F.2d 822 (7th Cir. 1966), represents New Jersey law.
Evans also arose out of an automobile collision in which the plaintiff sued the defendant in negligence, breach of implied warranty, and strict tort liability, seeking to recover money damages for enhanced injuries resulting from a design defect. Evans held that "the intended purpose of an automobile does not include its participating in collisions with other objects" even though such collisions were foreseeable, and affirmed the District Court's dismissal of the plaintiff's case.
In Biasvachi v. Frost, L-37, 763-67 (N.J.Super., Bergen County, June 5th, 1970); Mickendrow v. United States Homes and Development Corp., L-35, 295-67 (N.J.Super., Ocean County, May 21st, 1970), and Burnet v. General Motors Corp., Civil No. 833-66, D.N.J., June 3rd, 1969), two New Jersey trial court judges and one Federal District Court judge rejected Larsen. However, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has not had occasion to deal with a Larsen - type claim. Accordingly, we must determine what result the Supreme Court of New Jersey would have reached, given the circumstances of this case. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938); Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 87 S. Ct. 1776, 18 L. Ed. 2d 886 (1966); Roginsky v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc., 378 F.2d 832 (2nd Cir. 1967).
The sole element relied on by the plaintiff to impose a duty upon the manufacturer in this genre of cases is the foreseeability of automobile accidents. The mere fact that defendants here could logically foresee that some Volkswagens would be involved in accidents suffices, it is alleged, to require them to make those vehicles "reasonably safe" in a collision or be made to respond in damages. It is obvious, of course, that automobiles are unhappily and almost continuously colliding with other motor vehicles, with trees, with culverts, with locomotives, and with every imaginable type of object, either moving or fixed; that they are, indeed, driven off bridges, driven into water, and driven over cliffs; they are, in fact, involved in collisions of limitless variety. But does this foreseeability, in negligence terms, create a duty on the part of automobile manufacturers to design their cars to avoid the various injuries and damages which result from such accidents? The question of imposing such a duty is, of course, not a question of fact but a question of law for the court to determine. Goldberg v. Housing Auth. of Newark, 38 N.J. 578, 186 A.2d 291 (1962); Evans v. General Motors, supra; Larsen v. General Motors, supra.
In New Jersey, the test for establishing the existence of a duty is set forth in Goldberg v. Housing Auth. of Newark, supra, at p. 583, 186 A.2d at p. 293, as follows:
"The question is not simply whether a criminal event is foreseeable, but whether a duty exists to take measures to guard against it. Whether a duty exists is ultimately a question of fairness. The inquiry involves a weighing of the relationship of the parties, the nature of the risk, and the public interest in the proposed solution." 38 N.J., at 583, 186 A.2d, at 293.