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Viets v. Dorel Juvenile Group

July 29, 2008

MELISSA M. VIETS AND RUSSELL S. VIETS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DOREL JUVENILE GROUP, INC., DEFENDANT.
DOREL JUVENILE GROUP, INC., DEFENDANT/THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
LEONARD D. VANDERWIELE, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hughes, U.S.M.J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter has come before the Court by Motion of Defendant Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc. ("Defendant") for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs' Melissa M. Viets and Russell S. Viets ("Plaintiffs") product liability claims [dkt. entry no. 31], returnable on July 10, 2008. Plaintiffs filed opposition to Defendant's motion on May 15, 2008. Defendant filed a reply brief to Plaintiffs' opposition on May 27, 2008. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 for purposes of summary judgment. The Court heard oral argument in this matter on July 10, 2008. For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied in part and granted in part

II. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This litigation arises from a products liability action in which Plaintiffs allege that their four-year-old daughter, Jacqueline Viets ("Jacqueline"), died in an automobile accident due to a defectively designed car seat, the Cosco Complete Voyager (" Voyager"). (Def.'s Br. at 1.) Defendant has moved for summary judgment arguing that (1) there is no evidence that any defect in the car seat was a substantial factor in Jacqueline's injuries, and (2) there is no evidence that there was a reasonable alternative design to the car seat using either a "state of the art" or a "risk/utility" analysis. Id.

The accident occurred on July 2, 2004 in Bayville, New Jersey. Id. Plaintiff Melissa Viets drove a 1999 Volkswagen Passat westbound on Serpentine Road and collided frontally with an eastbound 1999 Dodge Ram Pickup truck driven by Third-party Defendant, Leonard Vanderwiele ("Mr. Vanderwiele"). ARCCA INC., Preliminary Restraint System Analysis Report Viets v. Dorel, et. al. 2 (2007). It is undisputed that the accident was caused by Mr. Vanderwiele's reckless driving. (Def.'s Br. at 1.) At the time of the accident, Jacqueline was sitting in the left-rear passenger seat in a Voyager belt-positioning booster car seat designed and manufactured by Defendant. Id. at 2. Jacqueline was almost four-years old, weighed thirty-seven (37) pounds, and was thirty-eight and half (38.5) inches tall. Id.

Due to the severity of the accident, Plaintiffs and their medical expert recognized that serious and fatal injuries were likely. Id. Plaintiff Melissa Viets suffered fractures to her face, neck, and wrist, in addition to cervical spinal cord injury. Id. Jacqueline died after suffering, among other injuries, a broken neck. Id. Even though the Voyager complies with governmental performance safety standards, Plaintiffs contend that the design of the Voyager is defective. Id.

Unlike car seats that have their own internal harness, a belt-positioning booster ("BPB") seat uses the vehicle's shoulder and lap belt to directly restrain Jacqueline. (Van Arsdell's Decl. ¶ 3.)Plaintiffs' "defects" expert, Gary Whitman ("Mr. Whitman"), claims that this design is defective because the routing of the vehicle's shoulder belt through the BPB's shoulder slots can "introduce slack" in the system, resulting in "dynamic amplification of acceleration and loads" experienced by a child occupant, such as Jacqueline, in a crash. (Whitman Dep. at 76.) Furthermore, Mr. Whitman also stated that the design of BPBs is defective because children are more likely to sustain abdominal injuries from "submarining"*fn1 under the lap belts of a BPB, than if they were restrained in a seat with a five-point harness. Id. at 62-63.

A. Defendant's Arguments

1. Plaintiffs' Inability to Demonstrate that any Defect in the Car Seat was a "Substantial Factor" in Producing Jacqueline's Injuries

Defendant argues that Plaintiffs have no evidence that either of these possible defects contributed to Jacqueline's injuries. (Def.'s Br. at 3.)Neither Mr. Whitman nor Dr. Howard Adelman ("Dr. Adelman"), Plaintiffs' forensic pathologist expert, could quantify the amount of the "amplification of accelerations and loads" that was attributable to the Voyager's design, nor were they able to say whether this amount was sufficient to cause injuries that would not have occurred otherwise. Id. In addition, neither Mr. Whitman nor Dr. Adelman know how much force was required to break Jacqueline's neck nor how much less force Jacqueline's neck might have sustained had Jacqueline been in some alternative design car seat. Id. Further, Dr. Adelman could not give an opinion about the amount of Jacqueline's "submarining" or the possible increased severity of Jacqueline's injuries as a result of the "submarining." Id.

2. Plaintiff's Alternative Designs are not "Reasonable"

Plaintiffs offer two alternative designs, the Fisher-Price Safe Embrace (" the Safe Embrace") and the Britax Wizard ("the Wizard"), which Plaintiffs claim to be practical substitutes to the Voyager. Id. at 4. Defendant argues that the two alternative designs offered by Plaintiffs are not practical substitutes for the Voyager. Id. Unlike the Voyager, which is a BPB seat without an internal harness, Defendant argues that the Safe Embrace and the Wizard are convertible seats with internal harnesses. Id. BPB seats, like the Voyager, can be used only forward-facing to restrain children who weigh between thirty (30) and eighty (80) pounds, by running the automobile's lap and shoulder seat belt directly in front of the child. Id. Convertible seats, like the Safe Embrace and the Wizard, can be used rear-facing for infants, who weigh between twenty (20) and forty (40) pounds, and forward-facing for toddlers, who weigh between forty (40) and sixty-five (65) pounds. Id. Furthermore, a convertible seat's internal harness directly restrains the child, while the automobile's seat belt is used only to restrain the car seat itself. Id.

Defendant also argues that the Safe Embrace and the Wizard are not practical substitutes for the Voyager because of the availability and pricing of the products. Id. at 5. Unlike the Voyager, which has been on the market continuously since 1999, the Safe Embrace was sold only between 1998 and 2001 and the Wizard was sold only between 2003 and 2005. Id. Furthermore, the Safe Embrace's retail price was approximately $100, and the Wizard's retail price was approximately $269. Id. The Voyager, on the other hand, sells at a retail price of $30. Id. Defendant claims that this low price was an important factor in the Plaintiffs' decision to purchase the booster seat in 2004. Id.

Defendant further argues that convertible seats, such as the Safe Embrace and the Wizard, are more likely to be misused over BPB seats, and therefore do not make them practical substitutes for the Voyager. Id. Car seats with a five-point harness, like the Safe Embrace and the Wizard, require constant adjustment as the child grows, and still require a parent to install the child seat in the vehicle with the seat belt. Id. BPB seats, on the other hand, avoid the need for a harness since they only use the automobile's own lap and shoulder belt, which automatically adjusts its tension around the child. Id. Defendant cites studies that show that the more difficult a car seat is to use, the more likely it is to be misused. Id. (citing a 2004 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finding that "critical misuse" was found in 80% of convertible and forward-facing child restraints with internal harnesses, where only 40% was found in BPB seats) (citations omitted).

B. Plaintiff's Argument

1. The Defects in the Car Seat were a "Substantial Factor" in Producing Jacqueline's Injuries

Plaintiffs argue there is evidence that the defects in the car seat contributed to Jacqueline's injuries. Plaintiffs claim that BPB seats are defective since they do not restrain children who weigh less than forty (40) pounds as well as a convertible seat with a five-point harness would. (Whitman Dep. at 47.) Plaintiffs point to the testimony of Mr. Whitman in which he states that field data shows "that children in crashes much more severe than this one can withstand the forces, whatever they might be, when [they are] well restrained in a tethered five-point." Id. at 44. In addition, Mr. Whitman explains ...


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