Summary Judgment Victory Eliminates Plaintiffs’ Electronic Stability Control Theory

April 2011

January 2010 (London, KY) – The Eastern District Court of Kentucky (London Division) recently granted Ford Motor Company’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment limiting Plaintiffs from arguing at trial that the vehicle which Plaintiffs were driving and which was involved in a roll-over accident, was defective or defectively designed because it did not have an Electronic Stability Control ("ESC") system installed. In reaching this conclusion, the Court held that Plaintiffs had failed to offer adequate proof, through expert testimony, that the lack of an ESC system rendered the subject vehicle defective and/or caused the roll-over accident. Ford is represented by Kevin C. Schiferl of Frost Brown Todd, and local counsel Byron N. Miller and Kevin M. Murphy of Thompson Miller & Simpson.

On November 9, 2009, Thomas May was driving his two friends, Bradley Hall and Ben Cooley, Northbound on Interstate Highway 75 in Rockcastle County, KY. May lost control of the subject vehicle and it left the roadway, crossed a median, entered oncoming traffic, and flipped over several times after being struck by an oncoming vehicle. The accident resulted in the death of Thomas May and Bradley Hall, and severely injured Ben Cooley.

As part of their theory of recovery, Plaintiffs argued that the subject vehicle was unreasonably dangerous and/or defectively designed for failing to have an ESC system installed. In its Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, Ford argued that Plaintiffs failed to present adequate proof, through their liability expert or otherwise, that the lack of an ESC system rendered the vehicle defective in design and/or manufacture. Ford argued that Plaintiffs’ liability expert on vehicle stability and handling systems had in fact admitted during deposition that he could not definitively testify, and that he had nothing to support the opinion, that the subject vehicle was defective because it did not have an ESC system installed. Ford argued that without such expert testimony, Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof that a defective condition existed and on causation. Ford additionally argued that because Plaintiffs’ expert failed to provide data, test results, or other analyses to support a conclusion that the lack of an ESC system rendered the subject vehicle defective or proof that an alternative available and feasible design existed, Plaintiffs’ expert’s opinions relating to ESC systems were purely speculative, had no basis in scientific evidence, and did not establish beyond more than a theoretical possibility that a different design would have been feasible.

The Eastern District Court, siding with Ford, held that Plaintiffs failed to submit sufficient evidence, through expert testimony, to support their claim that the lack of an ESC system rendered the subject vehicle unreasonably dangerous or defectively designed. In reaching this conclusion, the May Court held that whether the subject vehicle was defectively designed was "not a matter of general knowledge of ordinary persons" and therefore, required expert testimony to establish both defect and causation. The May Court, citing Thomas v. Manchester Tank & Equipment Corp., 2005 WL 3673118, *1 (W.D. Ky. May 13, 2005), held that "‘expert witnesses are generally necessary, indeed essential, in products liability cases…to prove such matters as product defect and proximate causation…’". The May Court held that Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof because they offered "no expert testimony suggesting that lack of an ESC system, by itself, constitutes a defect " and, similarly, offered "no expert testimony suggesting that the [subject vehicle’s] lack of an ESC system caused the accident at issue…."

The May Court additionally held that Plaintiffs failed to offer, through expert testimony, proof of what injuries, if any, would have resulted had an alternative, safer design been used or some method of establishing the extent of enhanced injuries attributable to the allegedly defective design. Therefore, Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof under the crashworthiness doctrine, which permits recovery for an alleged defect in a vehicle that causes injuries over and above those which would have been expected in a collision absent the alleged defect. (See Toyota Motor Corp. v. Gregory, 136 S.W.3d 35, 41 (Ky. 2004)). The Court held that Plaintiffs’ expert on vehicle stability and handling "performed no tests in reaching [his] opinion" and "[did] not set forth any data or statistics on which his opinion [that ESC may have helped the driver of the subject vehicle maintain control of the subject vehicle after the suspension system was compromised] could be based". The Court held that "[i]n short, the Plaintiffs have no proof of what injuries would have resulted had an ESC system been installed, and they have no method of establishing the extent of enhanced injuries attributable to the lack of ESC." Rather, Plaintiffs have only their expert’s "speculation that an ESC system would have assisted [the driver] in maintaining control of the [subject vehicle]. Such evidence is insufficient to establish a prima facie crashworthiness claim."

Based on the inadequate testimony of Plaintiffs’ expert on defect and causation, as well as lack of expert proof of scientific testing, data and/or analysis of possible safer alternative designs which might have prevented injury enhancements, the May Court held that Ford was entitled to partial Summary Judgment, as a matter of law, on Plaintiff’s ESC claims. Based, in part, on Ford’s Partial Summary Judgment victory, which significantly limited Plaintiffs’ theories of liability, Ford obtained a favorable settlement shortly after the start of trial. 

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