Products Liability and Defective Vehicles

The heirs of a Pennsylvania man who died when he crashed his pickup truck into an embankment have won a second chance to take their claims against Ford Motor Company to a jury trial.

The accident happened when the man was on his way to work in his Ford F 150 pickup truck. He skidded through a “T” intersection into a ditch and hit a dirt embankment. The man was not wearing a seat belt. When emergency personnel arrived on the scene, they found the man dead in the passenger seat. The truck’s driver’s side air bag had deployed. Expert witnesses on both sides of the case agreed that the man had been traveling between 30 to 34 mph before applying his brakes.

The deceased man’s heirs sued Ford, claiming that the design of the Ford F 150 pickup air bag system was defective because the driver’s side air bag deployed at a low collision speed and deployed too late, causing the driver’s body to be too close to the steering wheel at the time of deployment. They claimed that if the air bag had not deployed at all, or had deployed in a timely fashion, the man would have suffered only minor injuries, if any.
Ford argued that its air bag system was not defective, and that the air bag deployed precisely as designed. Ford also claimed that the man’s heavy braking at the intersection and his failure to use a seat belt caused him to be out of proper driving position and too close to the steering wheel at the time of the air bag deployment. Ford also suggested that the man might have been reaching for something on the truck’s floor or doing something else unexpected that caused him to land in the passenger seat on impact.

Crashworthiness Claims

The heirs’ claims are known as “crashworthiness products liability claims.” In such cases, a plaintiff must prove that the manufacturer sold a vehicle in a defective condition, that the defect existed when the vehicle left the manufacturer’s hands, and that the defect caused injuries. The key inquiry in all products liability cases is whether or not the product is defective. In other words, the product is on trial.

In crashworthiness cases, vehicle manufacturers can be held responsible for defects that do not directly cause injuries but simply increase the severity of injuries. Pennsylvania law requires that manufacturers design and manufacture crashworthy vehicles. Stated another way, vehicle manufacturers must assume that accidents happen and must design vehicles with accidents in mind.

The man’s heirs appealed after they lost the first trial. On appeal, the heirs argued that the trial judge should not have permitted the Ford lawyers to tell the jury that the man was not wearing his seat belt. Drivers and front seat passengers must wear seat belts in Pennsylvania, but evidence that a driver or passenger was not wearing a seat belt is not admissible in accident trials in Pennsylvania.

When Pennsylvania first passed its mandatory seat belt law in 1983, the law was somewhat unpopular and lawmakers compromised, including in the new law a broad prohibition that seat belt use or nonuse could not be made an issue in accident cases. The trial judge had decided that the heirs’ attack on the truck’s air bag system entitled the jury to know everything about the operation of the restraint systems in the truck, both air bags and seat belts. On appeal, the heirs won their objections, and the case was returned to county court for another trial, with no evidence to be admitted on the seat belt use.

The appeals court noted that the ban on the admissibility of seat belt use is broad and has no exceptions. Until the law changes, unless all parties to a case agree otherwise, no evidence can be admitted in any accident cases regarding whether the people involved in the accident were using seat belts.

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