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Heaton v. Ford Motor Co.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    After Plaintiff’s truck hit a rock it left the road and tipped over. Plaintiff sued Defendant, claiming the truck was defective. The trial court entered a judgment of involuntary nonsuit against Plaintiff, and Plaintiff appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When there is no direct or circumstantial evidence to show what design or manufacturing defect existed, a plaintiff may still recover in a design defect case if he is able to show to the jury that the product failed to perform to the reasonable expectations of the user.

    Facts.

    Heaton (Plaintiff) purchased a new Ford truck for regular, everyday driving on the roadways and for use in hunting and other off-road activities. While driving on a highway at normal speed, Plaintiff’s truck hit a rock about five or six inches in diameter. The truck operated normally for about 35 miles thereafter, but then suddenly left the road and tipped over. It was later learned that the rim of one of the truck’s wheels was separated from the “spider” – the interior portion of the wheel that is attached to the rim. There was also a large dent in the rim and a five-inch cut in the inner tube at a spot within the tire that was adjacent to the dent in the rim. Plaintiff sued Ford Motor Company (Defendant) claiming the truck was defective. The trial court entered a judgment of involuntary nonsuit against Plaintiff, and Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether a plaintiff may still recover in a design defect case if he is able to show to the jury that the product failed to perform to the reasonable expectations of the user even thought there is no direct or circumstantial evidence to show what design or manufacturing defect existed.

    Held.

    Yes. The trial court’s ruling is affirmed. When there is no direct or circumstantial evidence to show what design or manufacturing defect existed, a plaintiff may still recover in a design defect case if he is able to show to the jury that the product failed to perform to the reasonable expectations of the user.

    Dissent.

    If Plaintiff had struck a one-inch rock instead of a five-inch rock, the majority would likely have held that it presented a question for the jury because rocks of that size are often found on roadways. However, the majority arbitrarily drew a line somewhere between the one-inch rock and the five-inch rock involved in this case. Whether an automobile manufacturer has a duty to construct a wheel of such durability as to withstand the impact of a rock of the size involved here should depend on whether the manufacturer could reasonably foresee the likelihood that the rock would be encountered by those driving the vehicle. Such a duty might also depend on the manufacturer’s warranties and representations made with respect to the durability of the vehicle. A jury is just as well equipped to determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s conduct as it is when the inquiry is made as to defendant’s negligence. The members of the jury draw upon their experiences and observations and set up some kind of a standard as a measure against which to appraise the defendant’s conduct in the particular case. I believe the question of Defendant’s liability was kept from the jury here not because there is a lack of evidence upon which to sustain a verdict for Plaintiff, but because the majority wrongly distorted the concept of the jury’s function.

    Discussion.

    A function of the court is to decide whether the evidence presented furnishes a sufficient basis for the jury to make an informed decision. When there is no direct or circumstantial evidence to show what design or manufacturing defect existed, a plaintiff may nonetheless recover in a design defect case if he is able to show that the product failed to perform to the reasonable expectations of the user. In that situation, a jury would have a basis for making an informed judgment upon the existence of a defect. Here, there is no basis for the jury to make such an informed judgment. The jury is not permitted to decide how strong products should be. Rather, the jury is supposed to determine the factual question of what reasonable consumers expect from the product. Where the jury has no basis for knowing this, the record must supply such a basis. Without reference to factual data, the jury has no special qualifications for deciding what is reasonable. Here, Plaintiff provided no such factual data or basis to allow a jury to determine a reasonable consumer’s expectations for the truck in question. Plaintiff’s general impression that a “rugged” Ford truck could reasonably be expected to negotiate rough terrain, including five-inch or six-inch rocks at off-road speeds does not mean that the same should be expected on a highway at highway speeds.


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