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McLaughlin v. Nissan Motor Corp.

Decided: June 11, 1993.

LORI ANN MCLAUGHLIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NISSAN MOTOR CORPORATION, U.S.A., DEFENDANT



Arnold, P.J.Cv.

Arnold

In this product liability action, the plaintiff alleges that her 1986 Nissan Pulsar automobile had two design defects which proximately caused an eight inch scar on her forehead and scalp. The first alleged defect was that the A-pillar was too close to the driver's head and the second was that the A-pillar was not properly padded. The defendant moved for an involuntary dismissal at the end of the plaintiff's case and an order for judgment at the close of all the evidence on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to prove "enhanced injury" as required by the holding in Huddell v. Levin, 537 F. 2d 726 (3d Cir.1976). This court held that because neither defect caused an "enhanced injury" the defendant's motions were denied. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and the defendant moved for a new trial. The motion for a new trial is granted because this court erred in not granting defendant's motion as to the second alleged defect.

On March 9, 1989, the plaintiff was driving her Nissan Pulsar automobile South on Route 202 in the area of Bernardsville, New Jersey. She swerved to avoid two deer that ran across the highway and the car went off the road and travelled 280 feet into a wooded area. Before stopping, the car sideswiped one or more trees. Although it is undisputed that the plaintiff was wearing an integrated lap and shoulder belt, she sustained an eight inch cut on the left part of her forehead which extended into her scalp. Three hundred stitches were required to close this wound, which left plaintiff with a substantial scar on her forehead and scalp.

An engineer accident reconstruction expert testified for plaintiff that the cut was caused by plaintiff's head striking the A-pillar of the car. The A-pillar is the steel roof support located between the driver's door and the windshield. The engineer accident reconstruction expert also testified that the Nissan Pulsar was defective because that pillar was too close to the driver's head, allowing the driver's head to strike the pillar even if the driver was wearing the integrated lap and shoulder belt. In addition, he testified that the

A-pillar was defective because it was only covered with a plastic cover and not padded.

A plastic surgeon testified for the plaintiff that the cut sustained by the plaintiff was caused by contact with a blunt object, such as the A-pillar and, over objection, testified that the plaintiff would have sustained a less serious wound if the pillar had been padded as opposed to having only a plastic cover. Significantly, the plastic surgeon admitted on cross-examination that he could not quantify the injury that the plaintiff would have sustained if the A-pillar had been padded except to say that plaintiff's wound would have been less serious. An engineer accident reconstruction expert called by the defendant, the distributor of the car, testified that the car was not defective and that the wound sustained by the plaintiff was caused when the car sideswiped a tree which struck the plaintiff's head.

As already noted, at the close of the plaintiff's case, the defendant moved for an involuntary dismissal pursuant to R. 4:37-2 and also moved for judgment at the close of all the evidence pursuant to R. 4:40-1. Both motions were based on the holding in Huddell supra, 537 F. 2d at 738. Specifically, defendant argued that the holding in Huddell required a dismissal because plaintiff had not proven "enhanced injuries attributable to the defective product." Ibid.

The Huddell case is the leading case in a line of cases called "second collision" or "enhanced injury" cases. The facts in Huddell are as follows: Huddell was enroute from his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to the Delaware State Hospital when his car ran out of gas on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. His car was brought to full stop in the left-most southbound lane of traffic and was struck in the rear by a car driven by the defendant, George Levin. Levin's speed was estimated at between fifty and sixty miles per hour when it struck Huddell's car. Because of the energy absorbing characteristics of the vehicles, the rear of Huddell's head struck the headrest on the driver's seat at a speed of ten miles per hour. With the exception of his head, Huddell

sustained superficial injuries, but the blow of his head against the headrest resulted in an "extensive fracture" to the occipital region of the skull. There was expert testimony that the headrest was defectively designed because it exposed Huddell's head to a severe sharp metal edge, and that this defect proximately caused his death. Suit was instituted against Levin, the driver of the vehicle which struck Huddell's car, Levin's employer, and against General Motors Corporation, the manufacturer of Huddell's car. As to General Motors Corporation, the complaint charged that the headrest installed in Huddell's car was defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous, and failed to give proper protection against a rear end collision such as occurred.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff had the burden of proving "enhanced injuries" sustained by virtue of the allegedly defective headrest, Huddell, supra, 537 F. 2d at 737, and that General Motors was only liable for enhanced injuries attributable to the defective product. Id. at 740. Specifically, the court held that the plaintiff must prove not only that the design in question was defective but must offer proof of an alternative safer design practicable under the circumstances, and the injuries that would have been sustained had the alternative safer design been used. Thus, the plaintiff is required to prove the extent of "enhanced injuries" due to defective design. Id. at 738. Defendant's motions in this case are grounded in the decision in Huddell. Defendant argues that the plaintiff introduced no evidence from which the jury could determine what "enhanced injuries" resulted from the alleged defects in the Nissan Pulsar.

Preliminarily, this court notes that jurisdictions have split on the issue of whether the plaintiff or the manufacturer has the burden of proving the "enhanced injury." One line of cases adheres to the holding of Huddell. See Cleveland v. Piper Aircraft Corp., 890 F. 2d 1540 (10th Cir.1989). Another line of cases does not require a plaintiff to prove with specificity the "enhanced injuries" which flowed ...


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