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Boyle v. Ford Motor Co.

March 18, 2008

MICHAEL BOYLE, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND INTEK AUTO LEASING, NEW JERSEY BOOM & ERECTORS, DEFENDANTS/THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFFS, AND GARDEN STATE ENGINE & EQUIPMENT COMPANY, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, L-1043-03.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued December 4, 2007

Before Judges Coburn, Fuentes and Grall.

This product liability case arises from an automobile accident in which plaintiff Michael Boyle was seriously injured when his car collided with a truck leased to and operated by defendant New Jersey Boom & Erectors ("NJBE"). Plaintiff alleged that the front-end of his car burrowed under the truck's undercarriage, pushing the hood of his car into the passenger compartment, and shearing the vehicle's roof. According to plaintiff, this occurred because the truck was not properly equipped with a rear bumper guard.

Defendant Ford Motor Company manufactures and sells the truck's chassis cab. The chassis cab, denoted by Ford as F-800, is designed and intended to be a generic vehicle, to be retrofitted and otherwise altered to meet the vehicle owner's use-specific needs. Here, NJBE, as the owner of the F-800, contracted with defendant Garden State Engine & Equipment Company ("GSEE") to attach a flatbed and tow crane on the F-800 chassis cab.

As part of this contract, GSEE also designed and installed a rear bumper guard, a device specifically intended to prevent the type of "burrowing" accident that occurred here. Despite these efforts, the force of the collision dislodged the truck's rear bumper guard, allowing plaintiff's car's front-end to insert itself under the truck's rear-frame.

On these facts, a jury found Ford liable, concluding that the F-800 chassis cab was defectively designed when it left Ford's control without a rear bumper guard. The jury also found Ford liable for failing to include, as part of the F-800 chassis cab, a rear bumper guard capable of being installed by the vehicle's end-user. In addition to these two liability-scenarios, the jury found Ford liable for failing to provide adequate technical assistance, to companies like defendant GSEE, about the various ways to provide rear bumper protection.

With respect to defendant GSEE, the jury found that the truck was defective when it left GSEE's control without adequate under-ride protection. In allocating liability, the jury found Ford seventy percent liable and GSEE thirty percent liable.*fn1 The trial court denied Ford's application for the jury to consider plaintiff's negligence in allocating responsibility for the accident.

The jury awarded plaintiff damages in the amount of $26,881,754, representing $279,354 for past lost wages, $1.6 million for future lost wages, $2,400 for medical costs, and $25 million for pain and suffering. In reaching these figures, the jury found that plaintiff would have sustained only 2.5% of his injuries if the truck's rear bumper guard safety device had responded as intended.

In response to Ford's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, a new trial, or remittitur, the trial court denied the first two applications for relief, and granted the motion for remittitur, reducing the award for pain and suffering to $15.5 million. Plaintiff accepted the remittitur. The court thus entered a final judgment against Ford in the amount of $13,374,137.40, representing its seventy percent liability for plaintiff's enhanced injuries and including prejudgment interest to the date of judgment.*fn2

Ford now appeals arguing that the trial court erred when it made it legally responsible for the installation of the rear bumper guard on the F-800 chassis cab. Ford argues that the F-800 chassis cab was merely a component part of the finished truck involved in the accident. Given the multiple and unforeseeable modifications required to transform the F-800 into a finished product, Ford argues that it is not feasible nor practical to impose upon Ford the legal duty of installing this under-ride protection. As an alternative position, Ford argues that the trial court erroneously denied its application to have the jury consider plaintiff's negligence.

After reviewing the record, and in light of prevailing legal standards, we reverse. We agree with Ford that its role as the manufacturer of the chassis cab F-800 is consistent with that of a component product manufacturer. In this role, it is neither feasible nor practical to impose upon Ford the legal responsibility for installing or providing the safety device at issue here.

At the time of the accident, the F-800 chassis cab had undergone substantial modifications to meet the specific requirements of the truck's end-user. Consistent with industry practices and federal regulatory safety standards, the legal responsibility for installing the rear bumper guard must lie with the truck's final-stage manufacturer, because this entity is in the best position to determine the type of safety device needed.

We recognize that the chassis cab F-800 was mechanically capable of being driven on the public roadways when it left Ford's control without the rear bumper guard. Indeed, the record here shows that this particular chassis cab was actually driven, without the rear bumper guard, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to Secaucus, New Jersey, as part of a dealer's trade. If driven without the rear bumper guard, the F-800 would be deemed a defective component product as a matter of law. Thus, had the accident at issue here occurred during the "dealer's trade" voyage, Ford would have been liable for injuries proximately caused by such a defective component product.

By contrast, when the accident occurred here, the F-800 chassis cab had been substantially modified by the final stage manufacturer, including the installation of a rear bumper guard as required by federal regulations. It is thus practical and feasible to impose liability for the proper installation of this safety device upon the final stage manufacturer, because the features and installation requirements of the rear bumper guard needed to meet federal regulatory standards could only be known and ascertained when the final end-use of the truck was determined. Stated differently, the final stage manufacturer here was in the best position, in the chain of production, to determine what type of rear bumper guard best complied with the applicable safety standards.

In reaching this conclusion, we adhere to the "feasibility and practicality" standard articulated by our Supreme Court in Zaza v. Marquess & Nell, Inc., 144 N.J. 34 (1996). Our analysis is also informed by the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 5 (1998).

Applying these legal principles, we now hold that a manufacturer or distributor of a component product is liable for the harm caused by the absence of a safety device in a finished product, when a plaintiff proves, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it was feasible and practical for such safety device to have been installed at the time the component product was within the control of the manufacturer or distributor. Zaza, supra, 144 N.J. at 51.

Alternatively, a manufacturer or distributor of a component product is liable for the harm caused by a defective finished product when: (1) such defect was caused by the integration of a defective component product into the finished product; or (2) the manufacturer or distributor of the component product substantially participates in the integration of the component product into the ultimate design of the finished product; and (i) the integration of the component causes the product to be defective; and (ii) the resulting defective product is a proximate cause of the harm. Restatement, supra, § 5.

Ford, as the manufacturer of the F-800 component product, is not liable for the injuries sustained by plaintiff because:

(1) the injuries to plaintiff are not directly attributable to any defect in the component product; (2) there was no feasible or practical way for Ford to have installed the safety device in the finished product; and (3) Ford did not participate in any way in the integration of the component product into the finished product.

We will examine and discuss these issues in the following factual context.

I. The Accident

The accident occurred in January 2002, on Route 46 in Little Falls. The speed limit in this area is fifty miles per hour. There were only two vehicles involved in the accident: the truck and plaintiff's car.

The truck was a Ford F-800 chassis cab with a flatbed mounted on top of the frame rails securing a tow crane. The length of the truck's after-frame, (the portion of the frame beyond the rear axle), was 130 inches; the top of the frame rails was approximately 38 inches above the ground.

NJBE bought the F-800 chassis cab from a Ford dealership in this State. At the time of purchase, the truck had temporary brakes and tail lights, but no rear bumper guard. The Ford dealership did not advise NJBE to install a bumper guard before driving the chassis cab to GSEE's facility for installation of the flatbed and crane.*fn3 GSEE designed the rear bumper and used welds to attach it to the side of each frame rail. No other alterations were made to the truck or the bumper guard before the accident.

Plaintiff's car was a 1994 Ford Taurus. At the time of the accident, the truck was traveling at approximately 45 mph; plaintiff's car was traveling consistent with other vehicles on the road, at about 55 mph. The accident occurred when plaintiff's car collided with the rear of the truck. In the initial impact, the truck's rear bumper separated and was "flung" away. The truck's driver did not feel the ...


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