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Soule v. General Motors Corporation

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Soule (Plaintiff) sued General Motors Corporation (Defendant) after her ankles were broken in an automobile accident, alleging defective design of her Camaro.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In a defective design products liability case involving a complex product, the proper standard to be applied is whether the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefits of the design, the excessive preventable danger rule.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff was driving her Camaro without wearing her seatbelt when she collided with a Datsun that skidded on the wet road into her path. Experts estimated that the combined speed of the cars was between 30 and 70 MPH. The collision bent the frame of the Camaro near the driver’s side front wheel and tore loose a bracket. The wheel then collapsed into the underside of the toe pan and crumpled it, causing fractures to both of Plaintiff’s ankles. Plaintiff sued Defendant, claiming that design of the automobile was defective in the placement of the bracket and the configuration of the frame. Testimony at trial was provided by numerous expert witnesses on design engineering, orthopedics, and biomechanics. Defendant argued that the force of the accident and Plaintiff’s failure to wear a seatbelt caused her injures. The court instructed the jury on the ordinary consumer expectations rule of product liability law.  The jury found that the Camaro’s defective design was the cause of Plaintiff’s injuries and awarded her $1.65 million. The court of appeals affirmed and Defendant appealed to the state supreme court.

    Issue.

    Was the ordinary consumer expectations instruction appropriate for a defective design products liability case involving a complex product?

    Held.

    (Baxter, J.) No. In a defective design products liability case involving a complex product, the proper standard to be applied is whether the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefits of the design, the excessive preventable danger rule. Although the instruction given in this case was in error, the error was harmless. Under the excessive preventable danger standard, the danger inherent in the design is weighed against its benefits, and factors such as practicality, cost, and risk are considered. In this case, the expert testimony at trial centered on these issues and the consumer expectations theory was never presented or argued by either side. Even though the wrong instruction was given, it did not affect the jury’s decision. Affirmed.

    Discussion.

    The ordinary consumer expectations instruction should be given in cases where a product is alleged to have caused injury in a way that does not meet the consumer’s minimum expectations about the product’s proper usage. It could be used when a complex product is at issue, but not when defective design is alleged. For example, if a car rolled over when making a turn at 5 MPH, the ordinary consumer expectations instruction would be appropriate.


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