Plaintiff’s Comparative Fault Is Admissible In Indiana Crashworthiness Cases

April 2011

The Indiana Supreme Court recently resolved a certified question from the Southern District Court of Indiana, holding that a plaintiff’s comparative fault must be apportioned by juries in crashworthiness cases. This holding is significant for manufacturers defending defect claims where evidence exists showing the plaintiff caused the initial collision. Nelson Alexander, Kevin Schiferl and Maggie Smith of Frost Brown Todd represented Ford on the appeal, along with John M. Thomas of Bryan Cave LLP in St. Louis, Missouri.

Specifically, in Green v. Ford Motor Company, No. 94S00-1007-CQ-348, 2011 WL 400343, *4 (Ind., Feb. 8, 2011), the Court resolved the following issue in the affirmative:

Whether, in a crashworthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Products Liability Act, the finder of fact shall apportion fault to the person suffering physical harm when that alleged fault is a proximate cause of the harm for which damages are being sought. In the underlying federal lawsuit, Nicholas Green claimed that his 1999 Ford Explorer was defective and unreasonably dangerous because Ford negligently designed the vehicle’s restraint system. While operating his Explorer on January 24, 2006, Green’s Explorer left the road, struck a guardrail, rolled down an embankment and came to rest on its roof. The crash injured Green, leaving him a quadriplegic. Green claimed that the allegedly defective restraint system enhanced his injuries. In a motion that would lead to the certified question, Green moved to exclude evidence of his alleged fault for causing the crash. He argued that any such evidence is irrelevant to his claim that Ford negligently designed the vehicle’s restraint system.

Ford argued that Green’s product liability claims are subject to Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act, and therefore, any fault by Green in causing the crash should be considered and allocated by the jury. The District Court certified the issue for resolution by the Indiana Supreme Court. The Indiana Supreme Court began by discussing the history of the crashworthiness doctrine, concluding that it merely expands the proximate cause requirement and holds manufacturers liable for enhanced injuries. The Court identified the statement of the doctrine in Larsen v. General Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968). Importantly, the Larsen court stated that "[t]he normal risk of driving must be accepted by the user but there is no need to further penalize the user by subjecting him to an unreasonable risk of injury due to negligence in design." Green at *1 (citing Larsen at 505).

The Court went on to note that the crashworthiness doctrine began as an extension of strict liability concepts, while beginning to distinguish between the initial impact and the injury to the occupant. It "is merely a variation of the strict liability theory, extending a manufacturer’s liability to situations in which the defect did not cause the accident or initial impact, but rather increased the severity of the injury." Green at *2 (citing Barnard v. Saturn Corp., a Div. of General Motors Corp., 790 N.E.2d 1023, 1032 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003), trans. denied). The reference to the initial impact is important—it identifies an existing distinction in Indiana’s appellate courts between the impact that caused the crash and the injury-causing impact – the collision between the vehicle occupant and another object, usually the interior of the vehicle. See Green at *2.

Relying upon this distinction, plaintiff Green sought a rule making any negligence on the part of a claimant in causing the initial collision irrelevant to the determination of liability for the second collision. The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed, and focused primarily on Indiana’s Product Liability Act and Comparative Fault Act.

The language of Indiana’s Product Liability Act and Comparative Fault Act lead to the Court’s conclusion that a plaintiff’s negligence must be considered by the jury in crashworthiness cases. The Product Liability Act, enacted in 1995, mandates that comparative fault principles are to be used in determining liability in product liability cases.

"In a product liability action, the fault of the person suffering the physical harm, as well as the fault of all others who caused or contributed to cause the harm, shall be compared by the trier of fact in accordance with [Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act]."

In assessing a percentage of fault, the jury shall consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the physical harm….Ind. Code § 34-20-8-1(a), (b).

Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act governs Indiana’s modified comparative fault scheme, in which a plaintiff’s claims are barred if his/her fault exceeds 50% of the total fault assigned by the jury.

"The jury shall determine the percentage of fault of the claimant, of the defendant, and of any person who is a nonparty…

"If the percentage of fault of the claimant is greater than fifty percent (50%) of the total fault involved in the incident which caused the claimant’s death, injury, or property damage, the jury shall return a verdict for the defendant and no further deliberation of the jury is required. Ind. Code § 34-51-2-7(b).

The definitions of "fault" for purposes of these Acts are expansive, and both "require consideration of the fault of all persons ‘who caused or contributed to cause’ the harm." Green at *3 (citing Ind. Code §§ 34-20-8-1(a), 34-51-2-7(b)(1), 34-51-2-8(b)(1)). The Court concluded that the fact that a plaintiff claims only enhanced injuries from a second collision does not preclude the jury from "considering evidence of all relevant conduct of the plaintiff reasonably alleged to have contributed to cause the injuries"—including causing the crash itself. Id. at *3. In considering such evidence, the jury must conclude that the conduct of the plaintiff constituted a proximate cause of his injuries in order to allocate fault to the plaintiff. Id.

Thus, the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling will permit the jury in the underlying federal case to apportion fault to Green himself, in the event the jury finds Green’s actions caused the initial crash and were a proximate cause of his injuries. If a jury assigns Green more than 50% of the total fault, his claims will be barred.

After the ruling, plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider. As of March 2011, the plaintiff’s motion to reconsider is pending with the Indiana Supreme Court, and Ford is responding. It is expected that the Supreme Court will rule quickly on the motion. Once the certified question is completely resolved, the matter will return to federal court for trial.