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Green v. General Motors Corp.

March 18, 1998


Argued: January 27, 1997

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

Before: Judges Dreier, P.g. Levy and Wecker.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dreier, P.j.a.d.

Defendant, General Motors Corporation (GM), appeals from a final judgment based upon a jury award in favor of plaintiff, who was driving a GM vehicle when involved in an accident that rendered him a quadriplegic . The jury awarded $13,000,000 for future medical expenses, $149,315 for loss of past income, $305,860.35 for loss of future income, and $4,000,000 for pain and suffering. Plaintiff's past medical expenses of $312,000 have been stipulated. The total damage award was therefore $17,767,175.35, which with prejudgment interest and costs, and a credit for a settlement with other defendants, totaled $25,110,484.90. GM also appeals from the denial of its motions for a judgment n.o.v., a new trial, or a remittitur. Plaintiff cross-appeals from a portion of the judgment granting defendant a $799,000 credit for amounts received from other defendants who settled after an initial trial had ended in a hung jury. The court deducted this amount from the final judgment after computation of the prejudgment interest noted earlier. Considering that the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, we will examine the facts in a light favorable to plaintiff, except where any alternative facts may bear upon one of the many issues raised by GM.

On the day of the accident, June 9, 1986, plaintiff, then twenty-four years old and five feet, nine inches tall, was employed as a "car jockey" by Sullivan Chevrolet, an automobile dealership in Roselle Park. He was driving one of his employer's automobiles, a brand new 1986 Chevrolet Camaro IROC (International Race of Champions) Z28 sports coupe, a two-door vehicle designed and manufactured by defendant.

The Camaro was equipped with a "T-roof," a "luxury option" *fn1 provided by GM. In 1986, the Camaro was constructed with both an "A-pillar" and a "B-pillar." The A-pillar consisted actually of two pillars and a header which held the front windshield and supported the door hinges. The B-pillar similarly supported the rear window. In the T-roof Camaro there was a steel "center T-bar" welded into the center of the front windshield header and the rear window header. The roof design is called a "T-roof" or "T-top" because the T-bar is the only connection between the A and B pillars. Removable glass panels were supported by the front and rear headers and the T-bar, and provided a convertible-like feeling and driving experience when they were removed. When installed, they provided greater protection from the weather and more security than a canvas-top convertible.

As plaintiff drove the Camaro north on Chandler Avenue with both glass panels inserted and the side windows rolled up, he was accompanied by a friend, Marc Alexander, seated in the front passenger seat. Both plaintiff and Alexander were wearing their seat belts. The legal speed on Chandler Avenue was twenty-five miles per hour; however, plaintiff was apparently greatly exceeding the speed limit. As he came over a slight rise on Chandler Avenue, plaintiff saw a school van proceeding south on Chandler Avenue. According to the driver of the van, her speed was approximately twenty-five miles per hour when she first saw plaintiff's car. The only indication of how much this speed may have actually decreased by the time of the collision, is the van driver's estimate that her speed at contact was five miles per hour.

When plaintiff first observed the school van, it was only one or two car lengths away and was "right in the middle of the road" and "on the center line." We assume, however, that since the driver of the van was more elevated than plaintiff, she may have seen the Camaro slightly before plaintiff could see her. To avoid a head-on collision, plaintiff applied the Camaro's brakes and attempted to steer to the right, however, the left rear side of the Camaro, just behind the driver's-side door, struck the left front corner of the van at a thirty to forty-five degree angle.

The question of the speeds of the van and Camaro were disputed, and the record shows various estimates. Both plaintiff and the passenger estimated the Camaro's speed as between forty and fifty miles per hour. Plaintiff's expert, Donald Phillips, testified that there was insufficient physical evidence to perform a reliable reconstruction of speeds at impact. The van driver estimated plaintiff's speed at seventy-five miles per hour (and testified that plaintiff was on the wrong side of the road and did not decrease his speed). An employee of the Department of Public Works, who was travelling south on Chandler Avenue, 200 feet behind the school van in a dump truck, estimated plaintiff to be proceeding between sixty and seventy miles an hour. Defendant's expert estimated the Camaro's speed at between sixty-seven to seventy-six miles per hour. Therefore, if we accept the van driver's estimate that her vehicle was proceeding at five miles per hour at the time of the impact, and plaintiff's minimum estimate of his speed at forty miles per hour, the lowest closing speed between the two vehicles would have been forty-five miles per hour. If we accept the van driver's estimate of her speed and the maximum speed she and the independent witnesses placed upon the Camaro, the closing speed could have been as high as eighty-one miles per hour.

Plaintiff's medical expert explained that plaintiff had suffered a compression fracture of his spinal cord. Such an injury does not cause instantaneous paralysis, and therefore it "would take a longer time to show all the symptoms of spinal cord injury as opposed to a sudden disruption of the cord completely through." There was other eyewitness testimony that plaintiff could move his arms and legs immediately after the accident. But, unfortunately, this spinal cord injury quickly and permanently rendered plaintiff a quadriplegic.

Plaintiff's engineering expert's theory of the cause of plaintiff's injury focused on the collapse of the T-bar and "B" frame. When the Camaro hit the school bus to the rear of the driver's door and behind the center of gravity of the car, it spun, causing plaintiff's seat belt to force him back into his seat so that his head was just under the rear portion of the T-bar and B frame which deformed downward onto the back of plaintiff's head. The collapse of the T-bar compressed his spine and caused the compression fracture to his C5, C6, and C7 vertebrae. It was undisputed and is apparent from the photographs that the rear roof of the T-top caved downward in the accident.

Neither plaintiff nor Alexander had any post-accident memory of the accident beyond the instant of impact. Immediately after the accident, however, plaintiff was found outside of the Camaro lying facedown on the ground. *fn2 A neighbor who heard the crash ran to the site, and as she arrived she saw the driver's side door of the Camaro swing out, following which plaintiff "stepped out of the car." She testified that a "dazed" plaintiff took a "couple of steps," and "fell straight on his face." Defendant, through extensive expert testimony, contended that plaintiff was thrown from the car and suffered his injuries when he landed on his head. Plaintiff's expert testified that the lack of injuries that would have been commensurate with plaintiff so landing made such a scenario a virtual impossibility. This Conclusion, coupled with the independent witness who saw plaintiff open the door and walk away from the vehicle, certainly provides a sufficient basis for the jury's implicit factual finding that plaintiff was not ejected from the car.

The verdict was taken by special interrogatories. The jury found specifically that the "collapse of the rear roof of the T-Top Camaro caused it to strike the plaintiff on his head." It also found that the "roof collapse" was caused by a "design defect of the T-Roof Camaro." Finally, it determined that the roof collapse was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries, and that 100% of his injuries were "solely attributable to the design defect of the T-Roof Camaro." Presumably because of the earlier settlement, the jury was given no interrogatories relating to the responsibility of the driver of the van or her employer, and we have not been informed by the record on appeal whether GM had ever made a cross-claim for contribution against these former defendants, and if so, whether this claim was withdrawn when these defendants were released by plaintiff.

The additional facts concerning the trial, including those relating to the testing of the Camaro, the Judge's charge and testimony relating to damages will be discussed when these issues are explored.

Defendant has raised five points on this appeal, some with subparts. We have departed somewhat from defendant's organization of the arguments and will address each point accordingly.

I. The Judge's Instruction on Speed

GM first contends that the trial Judge mistakenly instructed the jury that it could not consider evidence of accident severity and speed in determining whether the Camaro's T-roof design was defective. Before we proceed to the jury instructions, we must examine the nature of plaintiff's claim. Plaintiff has not contended here that GM or the van driver were responsible for the accident. Plaintiff's cause of action against GM was based upon a crashworthiness theory. He claims that whoever might be responsible for the accident, GM was obliged to design a vehicle that would maintain the integrity of the passenger compartment sufficiently to prevent additional injury to the occupant. If plaintiff had not suffered the injury from the T-bar and B frame deflection, he would have had no claim against GM for the accident that resulted in large part from his faulty driving. Also, if the van driver were to some extent responsible for the accident, GM could have had that responsibility assessed by a timely request to the court to have the jury fix the van driver's percentage responsibility.

Given this narrow framework, we will focus on plaintiff's claim against GM. A design defect does not come into being at the time of an accident. Rather, it occurs when a defective product is placed into the stream of commerce. See Zaza v. Marquess & Nell, Inc., 144 N.J. 34, 48-49 (1996), and the cases cited therein. One of the differences between the causes of action for strict liability, negligence, or even some warranty claims is the way each focuses upon this time frame. If we were to look for negligence, we would focus upon the conduct of the manufacturer during the period of design, manufacture and distribution of the Camaro, including its testing and construction. If we were to look at a warranty claim, we would examine the performance of the car and determine whether it was "fit for the ordinary purposes for which" the car was used. N.J.S.A. 12A:2-314. A claim for strict liability, however, focuses on the car as it enters the stream of commerce to see whether it was defective. Zaza, supra, 144 N.J. at 49.

These neat temporal lines have been blurred over the years as we have come to realize that a claim for strict liability is akin to a negligence claim in that the central focus is upon the reasonableness of the manufacturer putting the defective product onto the market. Id. at 50. This is different from examining the manufacturer's conduct for negligence before the product was marketed. We do not look to see whether a particular designer acted unreasonably or whether a test engineer failed to perform a particular test, but rather whether a reasonable manufacturer, knowing the harmful propensities of the product, would have placed it onto the market in its condition. Ibid.

Under the New Jersey Products Liability Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 et seq. (PLA or the Act), the causes of action for negligence, strict liability and implied warranty have been consolidated into a single product liability cause of action, the essence of which is strict liability. Jurado v. Western Gear Works, 131 N.J. 375, 384-85 (1993); Tirrell v. Navistar Int'l, Inc., 248 N.J. Super. 390, 398-99 n.5 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 126 N.J. 390 (1991). The Act, however, was non-exclusive, and the Legislature intended that the existing common law would continue to be applied, except where specifically changed by the Act. Senate Judiciary Committee Statement to Senate Bill No. 2805 (1987), reprinted following N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1. The Act incorporated the standard from Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Mach. Co., 81 N.J. 150, 169 (1979), which required: "If at the time the seller distributes a product, it is not reasonably fit, suitable and safe for its intended or reasonably foreseeable purposes ... the seller shall be responsible for the ensuing damages." The PLA used a shorthand reference to this standard in N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-2, but as is clear from the Senate Judiciary Committee Statement, no change in the law was intended. Thus, in determining whether the Camaro was defective, a jury must determine the risks and alternatives that should have been known to a reasonable manufacturer, and then assess whether the manufacturer discharged its duty to provide a "reasonably fit, suitable and safe" vehicle. *fn3 To do this, the jury employs a risk-utility analysis. Jurado v. Western Gear Works, supra, 131 N.J. at 385. Although there are seven listed factors in the classical statement of the risk-utility analysis, see Cepeda v. Cumberland Eng'g Co., Inc., 76 N.J. 152, 174 (1978) and its progeny, the prevalent view is that, unless one or more of the other factors might be relevant in a particular case, the issue upon which most claims will turn is the proof by plaintiff of a "reasonable alternative design ... the omission ... [of which] renders the product not reasonably safe." Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 2(b) (Proposed Final Draft, April 1, 1997). *fn4 See Congiusti v. Ingersoll-Rand Co., Inc., 306 N.J. Super. 126, 138-39 (App. Div. 1997); Grzanka v. Pfeifer, 301 N.J. Super. 563, 579 (App. Div.), certif. denied, ___ N.J. ___ (1997); Smith v. Keller Ladder Co., 275 N.J. Super. 280, 283-84 (App. Div. 1994).

Plaintiff's premise in this case is that although he was negligent in the operation of the vehicle, his injuries did not flow from this negligence, but rather from the faulty design of the Camaro which should have protected plaintiff under the circumstances of this accident. Defendant counters with a claim that the speed of the vehicle in this case, which may have been over double the legal limit, was a factor that the jury should have considered in determining whether the Camaro was defectively designed. The trial Judge rejected defendant's view after a long and contentious argument. The Judge charged the jury that the speed of the vehicle, the use of a seat belt, the use of the vehicle, crossing lanes of traffic and the like could be considered by the jury only on the issue of proximate cause, that is, the allocation of the cause of plaintiff's injuries or of damages between those responsible for the accident and the alleged crashworthiness deficit. Speed could not be considered on the issue of whether the Camaro was defectively designed.

The applicable portions of the charge on this subject read as follows:

In this case the plaintiff alleges and has the burden of proving that the 1986 T-top Camaro was defectively designed because it was not crashworthy and that this defect was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. The defendant, by way of response, denies that the vehicle was defectively designed and contends that Michael Green's injuries were caused by his own conduct.

In this regard, please keep in mind that the conduct of the plaintiff concerning speed, seat belt use, use of the vehicle, crossing the lanes of traffic, etc., can only be considered by you on the issue of proximate cause. It cannot be considered by you as to whether the Camaro was defective.

... ven if you determine that the Camaro roof system was defective, you must go on to consider whether the defect was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. Plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that any defect in the Camaro roof system, whatever you may find it to be, was a proximate cause of his injuries.

By proximate cause I mean that the defect in the Camaro was a substantial factor that singly or in combination with another cause brought about plaintiff's injuries. . . . You may consider whether the speed of the Camaro at the time that it collided with the bus and the resulting severity of the accident was the proximate cause or the sole proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries.

In relation to speed, . . . you may take into account that except where otherwise posted it shall be lawful for the driver of a vehicle to drive at a speed not exceeding 25 miles per hour in any business or residential zone. Please remember that speed is only relevant on the subject of proximate cause and not on the question of whether the product was defective.

Defendant reiterated its objection at the new trial motion, but the judge again noted that speed was not a factor in this case.

With respect to the speed of the vehicle, I don't think I ever suggested certainly that the jury could not consider the severity of the impact on the issue of crashworthiness or the design defect, but certainly the issue of speed, how fast the vehicle was going, was not pertinent to the design of this particular car. It was not relevant. Certainly [it was] relevant on the issue of proximate cause, that was my determination then, it is still my determination today.

The speed of this vehicle was not relevant as to how the vehicle was designed, when it was designed and all of the factors that were taken into account by the design people, the design team, the design managers, and the design engineers. They had a number of things to consider, but what Mr. Green did on the date of this accident is not pertinent, not relevant to whether that design was defective or not.

We agree with the trial Judge. When GM placed this vehicle on the market, it certainly knew that it would be driven at lawful speeds up to fifty-five miles per hour and in some states sixty-five miles per hour. It also knew that the vehicle might collide with another vehicle similarly operated. The experts in this case testified to the crash-testing of vehicles with a purpose of maximizing the safety of the occupants. The experts further testified that the only relevant speed factor in an accident between vehicles of the same size and weight *fn5 is the closing speed between the two vehicles, there being no difference between a vehicle hitting a fixed object at eighty miles an hour and two vehicles travelling forty miles per hour in opposite directions hitting each other. The closing speed between plaintiff's vehicle and the school van of between forty-five and eighty-one miles per hour is well within the range reasonably to be expected in the design of the Camaro.

Plaintiff's expert testified that closing speeds of up to 110 miles per hour must be anticipated and designed for by automobile manufacturers, and the speed in this case was well within the realm of anticipated accident speeds that a responsible manufacturer would and does consider in designing an automobile that is reasonably crashworthy. While GM's expert did not discuss particular speeds, he testified that all accident circumstances should be considered in evaluating crashworthiness. He acknowledged that two vehicles travelling within the legal limits could have a 110 mile per hour closing speed. GM's estimate of the closing speed in this case was at least thirty miles per hour under the 110 mile per hour speed. We see, therefore, that if GM was required to design a reasonably safe vehicle for its intended and reasonably foreseeable use, it should, if possible, have designed a vehicle that could reasonably withstand a crash at considerably higher speeds than in this case.

Also, the speed limit and manner of driving were irrelevant to the plaintiff's crashworthiness issue. As stated in Green v. Sterling Extruder Corp., 95 N.J. 263 (1984), once the defendant has "a duty to protect persons from the consequences of their own foreseeable faulty conduct, it makes no sense to deny recovery because of the nature of the plaintiff's conduct." Id. at 272 (quoting Patricia Marschall, An Obvious Wrong Does Not Make a Right: Manufacturer's Liability for Patently Dangerous Products," 48 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1065, 1088 (1973). See also Ramos v. Silent Hoist & Crane Co., 256 N.J. Super. 467, 481 (App. Div. 1992) (noting that to appraise contributory negligence against a plaintiff would "excuse the very conduct that gives rise to strict liability on the part of the manufacturer" as well as to the manufacturer's negligence). Thus, the Camaro had to be designed, if feasible, to protect the integrity of the passenger compartment in an accident at a closing speed that could be reasonably anticipated by the manufacturer. If it was not, then the Camaro was defective, regardless of plaintiff's driving speed within such protectable limits. The speed at which plaintiff was driving might theoretically have been greater than that at which plaintiff's reasonable alternative designs would have afforded protection, but such was not the testimony. If the speed was beyond the design limits, speed would have been a proper factor to determine proximate cause and a later apportionment of liability. Since the closing speed in this case was recognized to be well within the acknowledged design parameters, and the passenger compartment remained intact, with the exception of the deforming T-bar roof, the trial Judge correctly ruled that speed was not a factor in determining whether the vehicle was defective.

As noted in the portions of the charge we quoted earlier, the trial judge did not rule out speed as a factor in the case. Plaintiff's speed was a definite factor in bringing about the accident, and the jury was told specifically and carefully that it could consider plaintiff's speed. However, speed properly was a factor solely in determining proximate cause, and this was carefully explained to the jury. *fn6 Insofar as plaintiff's injuries were caused solely by the product defect, speed was not relevant.

Defendant urges that the argument against consideration of speed with respect to the defect was overwhelmingly rejected in Huddell v. Levin, 537 F.2d 726 (3d Cir. 1976). The speed issue in Huddell was somewhat different from the one before us, but we will analyze it, analogizing the defective seat belt and headrest in Huddell with the alleged defective roof design in the case before us. The plaintiff in Huddell argued that if a seat belt and headrest design was faulty "it remains faulty whether an accident occurs at 5 m.p.h. or 100 m.p.h." Id. at 740. The Third Circuit rejected this argument, stating that the severity of the impact went to the heart of the question of a defect "in terms of the ordinary purposes for which the product, the head restraint, was designed." Ibid. The Huddell court reasoned that if the seat belt or head restraint failed to protect the wearer in a five mile per hour crash, there would be an inference of a defect, but that if the seat belt failed in a 100 mile per hour crash, the same argument might lose its validity. "At least in the context of safety design, we see no meaningful way to evaluate the defectiveness vel non of a product except in the context of a particular risk." Id. at 741.

The problem with the Huddell analysis is that it failed to assess the defect and any reasonable alternatives asserted by the plaintiff against the reasonably anticipated use of the product. Although the manufacturer is not an insurer of the safety of the occupant of a vehicle, the fifty to sixty mile per hour rear-end hit of the 1970 Chevrolet Nova in Huddell certainly was a foreseeable accident, and the reasonable alternative design suggested by the plaintiff of a larger and more deformable head restraint correctly persuaded the Huddell court that there was sufficient evidence to submit the issue of defect to the jury. Id. at 736. We must respectfully disagree, however, with the speed analysis in Huddell. The ten versus the hundred mile per hour rear-end collision comparison was appropriate, because a hundred mile per hour hit would be outside of the design parameters. But the anticipatable fifty to sixty mile per hour rear-end hit, with a reasonable alternative design presented, causes us to question whether speed should have been a factor in determining whether there was a defect in the design of the Huddell seat belt/headrest assembly. *fn7 Therefore, we depart from Huddell and agree with the trial Judge's decision in this case to limit the consideration of speed to the issue of proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries.

II. Reasonable Alternative Design

Plaintiff accepted his duty under the risk-utility formulation (or the alternative Restatement formulation) to present a reasonable alternative design to the jury. Plaintiff came forward with two such designs, both of which he contended would have prevented the B-pillar and roof deformity. The first alternative challenged the fundamental safety of the T-bar configuration itself and merely claimed that the basic Camaro design with a standard full sheet-metal roof provided sufficient stability to maintain the integrity of the passenger compartment, even in an oblique side impact such as in the case before us. GM's own tests confirmed this claim. With this design, plaintiff argued that if there were no other design that would have maintained the roof's stability, then the risk of an injury such as this far outweighed ...

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