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D’Amario v. Ford Motor Co.

    Brief Fact Summary. Harris (P) suffered injury when the car he was riding in, driven by an allegedly drunk friend, crashed into a tree and burst into flames. The car was allegedly over speeding at the time. Harris (P) and his mother, D’Amario (P) , filed suit on the grounds that a faulty electrical relay switch in the car, which was manufactured by the Ford Motor Co. (D), caused the explosion and fire which was responsible for injuries besides those due to the collision with the tree.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In cases of crashworthiness, the principles of apportioning comparative fault do not apply. The only thing necessary to be determined is whether the automobile manufacturer showed negligence in designing the car or any of its parts, and this liability is irrespective of the driver’s negligence.

    Facts. Harris (P) suffered injury when the car he was riding in, driven by an allegedly drunk friend, crashed into a tree and burst into flames. The car was allegedly over speeding at the time. Harris (P) and his mother, D’Amario (P) , filed suit on the grounds that a faulty electrical relay switch in the car, which was manufactured by the Ford Motor Co. (D), caused the explosion and fire which was responsible for injuries besides those due to the collision with the tree. Ford argued that it was a case of third-party negligence. The parties had diverging theories as to the cause of the fire and Harris’ injuries. The plaintiffs’ had a theory of liability hinging on a defective relay switch which failed to cut off the power supply to the fuel pump. However, Ford argued that the relay switch and fuel pump were in good working order, and it was the bursting of the oil pan, caused by the collision, which led to the fire. The court accepted Ford’s allegations that the primary cause of Harris’ injuries was the driver’s negligence, and allowed an apportionment of responsibility as a defense, as well as evidence of the driver’s actions in causing the collision at first as support for this defense. The jury found that Ford was not at legal fault in causing Harris’s injuries. The trial court granted a new trial, but this order was reversed by the court of appeals who affirmed the verdict in favor of Ford. The state supreme court granted review.

    Issue. In cases of crashworthiness, do the principles of apportioning comparative fault apply, so that a driver’s negligence is also necessary to be proved in addition to evaluating whether the automobile manufacturer showed negligence in designing the car or any of its parts?

    Held. (Per curiam) No. In cases of crashworthiness, the principles of apportioning comparative fault do not apply. The only thing necessary to be determined is whether the automobile manufacturer showed negligence in designing the car or any of its parts, and this liability is irrespective of the driver’s negligence. The majority held that if the driver or a third party is held to be at fault in causing the initial accident, this proves to be a defense to a crashworthiness suit against a vehicle manufacturer. The comparative faults of the person who caused the initial accident, and thus created the right situation for the second accident, and the automobile manufacturer who designed a defective auto part and thus neglected the duty of care, are to be evaluated before assessing the total responsibility for the injuries sustained by the claimant. The minority held that in such cases, comparative fault principles of assessment fail to apply. What is important here is the liability that carmakers who cause secondary injuries incur, by designing faulty parts or vehicles. This argument is followed up by assigning liability to the manufacturer for only those secondary injuries caused by the defective part, thus satisfying the demands of fairness. The fault of the driver is not relevant to this determination of product fault, and should not be introduced for fear of prejudicing the system against the plaintiff. Cases involving crashworthiness involve different categories of injuries, those caused by the first crash, and then those caused by a second collision or accident caused by the first one in relation to a defective automobile part. Thus the analogy is drawn between crashworthiness cases and medical malpractice cases against a successive medical practitioner who either aggravated an existing injury or caused a separate injury in addition to the original one. In this view, crashworthiness is a test of the car in which the manufacturing fault is revealed, and it pays no heed to the driver’s part in inducing a crash test. At the same time it upholds standards of justice by making sure that successive tort performers are made to pay damages only for the injuries they cause and not for those caused by the first person who committed tort. The lower court’s decision is reversed.

    Dissent. N/A

    Concurrence. N/A

    Discussion. The issue here is whether manufacturers are liable for design faults which do not create or cause an accident but contribute to secondary injuries after the first collision. The determination that they are liable applies when the injuries caused by the crash are greater than they would have been if the design of the vehicle had been better. The argument is not that the defect contributed to or caused the initial accident, but that it increased the injuries sustained. The plaintiff is required both to prove the existence of a design fault and that it caused her injuries, as well as additional separate or aggravated injuries caused by the fault.


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