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Adelman v. Lupo

June 11, 1996


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.

Approved for Publication June 11, 1996.

Before Judges D'Annunzio, Conley and Braithwaite. The opinion of the court was delivered by D'annunzio, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: D'annunzio

The opinion of the court was delivered by D'ANNUNZIO, J.A.D.

Plaintiffs *fn1 appeal from a judgment entered on a jury determination that defendant Chrysler Corporation's vehicle was not defective. A judgment entered against co-defendant Joseph A. Lupo in the amount of $2,750,000 has not been appealed.

On March 1, 1991, plaintiff was alone, driving home in her 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer on Route 208. Plaintiff's vehicle was proceeding in the middle lane of the three northbound lanes when the engine stopped running. Plaintiff's vehicle eventually came to rest in the extreme right-hand lane against the curb. There was no shoulder adjacent to the traveled lanes at this point of the highway and, because of the curb, plaintiff could move no farther to the right.

Several vehicles proceeding in the right-hand lane slowed as they approached plaintiff's stopped vehicle and eventually drove around her. A good samaritan, Carolyn Welch, stopped behind plaintiff's vehicle to see if she could be of assistance. Plaintiff and Welch emerged from their vehicles and walked towards each other. At that time, co-defendant Joseph Lupo was operating a vehicle in the right-hand lane and was unable to stop. He struck the Welch vehicle in the rear, pushing it into plaintiff and crushing her legs between the front of the Welch vehicle and the rear of plaintiff's vehicle. Plaintiff sustained very serious injuries.

Plaintiffs' claims against Joseph Lupo and the Chrysler Corporation were tried to a jury. As previously indicated, judgment was entered against Joseph Lupo based on the jury's determination that he had been negligent in the operation of his vehicle and that his negligence was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. This appeal concerns only plaintiffs' claim against Chrysler Corporation.

The engine stalled because an overheated check valve burned through a convoluted conduit; a conduit is a covering which protects an engine wire harness consisting of a bundle of wires. After burning through the conduit, the valve also burned through the insulation covering the wires, causing the electrical system to short circuit. No one disputes this sequence of events or that these events were the cause of the engine's failure.

The electrical harness ran from the front to the rear of the engine along the engine's right *fn2 bank. As previously indicated, it was protected by a nylon conduit which fit over the harness like a sleeve. In the vicinity of the check valve, the conduit was secured through the use of "L" brackets and rosebud clips. The "L" brackets were attached to the engine's valve cover approximately fourteen to fifteen inches apart. A rosebud clip was attached to each bracket, and the conduit ran through the circular rosebud clips. These clips were approximately fifteen inches apart. As designed by Chrysler, the conduit at the rear of the engine was to be located on the inboard side of the "L" bracket. On the date of plaintiff's injury, the rear clip and the conduit were located outboard of the "L" bracket. The outboard location brought the conduit closer to the check valve than it would have been had the rear clip been mounted inboard.

The engine had two check valves, one on the right side and one on the left side. These valves were part of the engine's emission control system. They permitted air to flow into the exhaust system through the top of the valve. However, the valve contained a diaphragm which prevented hot exhaust gases from flowing into the top of the valve, i.e., in the opposite direction from the airflow. It was uncontroverted that at the time of plaintiff's injury neither valve was functioning properly because both valves were badly corroded. Accordingly, hot exhaust gases were able to make their way into the top of the valve causing it to overheat. Plaintiff, however, did not contend that the check valves were defectively designed or defectively manufactured. No expert testified to that effect. Although all experts who testified agreed that the valves were not functioning, they did not know why the valves had corroded.

Plaintiffs contended that the harness/conduit had been defectively manufactured and defectively designed. As previously indicated, the rear rosebud clip was found after the accident to have been located outboard of the "L" bracket rather than inboard. Chrysler's design called for it to be located inboard. Gilbert Wray, plaintiffs' expert witness, testified that the mislocation of the conduit was a manufacturing defect because it had not been assembled according to Chrysler's design. Wray's opinion in this regard rested on his inference that a Chrysler employee had erroneously placed the conduit outboard of the engine at the time the vehicle had been assembled by Chrysler.

Wray also testified that Chrysler's failure to use a third clip to assure that the conduit would not come into contact with the check valve was a design defect. It appears from the evidence that a properly functioning check valve would not have burned through the conduit even if the valve and the conduit had come into contact with each other; a properly functioning check valve would not have generated the temperature necessary to degrade the conduit material. Wray testified, however, that failure of a check valve was a reasonably foreseeable event that Chrysler should have anticipated and protected against by utilizing a third clip. Wray also opined that the conduit was defective because its melting temperature was not high enough in light of the foreseeability of an overheated check valve.

Michael Cassidy, a Chrysler employee, testified for Chrysler. Cassidy had been involved in the harness design and testified that the harness routing utilized on plaintiffs' vehicle had been used since 1974. Cassidy had been responsible for durability tests of the harness in 1972 and 1973. He had inspected plaintiffs' vehicle in preparation for trial. Chrysler established through his testimony that substantial work had been done under the hood of plaintiffs' vehicle subsequent to its sale by Chrysler.

There had been a substantial modification of the battery mounting frame, and a ground wire had been added to the right fender splash apron. Cassidy noted a number of changes in the heater hose routing and that the radiator top had been re-soldered. Additionally, the drive belt which ran the air pump had been changed. The air pump fed air into the top of the check valves. If the air pump had not been functioning because of a broken belt, then the check valves would not have received the required airflow.

Finally, Cassidy testified that a new distributor cap and new ignition wiring had been installed. Installation of new ignition wiring was significant in this case because the ignition wiring for the right bank of the engine had to be installed under the conduit. According to Cassidy, the easiest way to install new ignition wiring on the right side of the engine would be to detach the conduit, install the new wiring, and then reattach the conduit. Cassidy also stated that the routing of the new ignition wires deviated from the design routing. As designed, the wires would run in front of the valve, but on plaintiffs' vehicle, all the ignition wires ran behind the valve.

Cassidy stated that the engine harness conduit is installed early in the assembly process, before the engine is placed into the vehicle's engine compartment. According to Cassidy, the harness is easy to see when installed and, therefore, any deviation in its attachment from the ...

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