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Vandermark v. Ford Motor Co.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiffs sued Defendants for injuries sustained when their car veered of the highway and collected with a light post. The trial court ruled in favor of Defendants. Plaintiffs appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    An automobile manufacturer and an authorized dealer are strictly liable in tort when someone is injured as a result of a defect that was present in the car when the vehicle was delivered to the dealer and subsequently delivered to the consumer.

    Facts.

    Chester Vandermark (Plaintiff) purchased a new Ford automobile from Maywood Bell Ford (Maywood Bell) (Defendant), an authorized Ford dealer. After Vandermark had driven the vehicle about 1,500 miles, he lost control of the car after he applied the brakes, veered off the highway, and collided with a light post and suffered serious injuries to himself and his sister, Mary Tresham (Plaintiff). Plaintiffs sued Maywood Bell and Ford Motor Company (Ford) (Defendant), the manufacturer of the vehicle for breach of warranty and negligence. At trial, Plaintiffs provided an expert on the operation of hydraulic automobile breaks who testified that, in his opinion, the brakes applied themselves after failure of the piston in the master cylinder leading to Vandermark’s loss of control of the vehicle. The trial court struck the testimony and rejected Plaintiffs’ offer to prove that all of the possible causes of the piston failure were attributable to all defendants. Thereafter, the trial court granted Ford’s motion of nonsuit as to all causes of action against it and directed a verdict in favor of Maywood Bell on the warranty causes. The jury returned a verdict for Maywood Bell on the negligence claim and the trial court entered judgment on the verdict. Plaintiffs appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether an automobile manufacturer and an authorized dealer are strictly liable in tort when someone is injured as a result of a defect that was present in the car when the vehicle was delivered to the dealer and subsequently delivered to the consumer.

    Held.

    Yes. The trial court’s ruling of nonsuit in favor of Ford is reversed. The trial court’s judgment in favor of Maywood Bell on the negligence causes of action is affirmed and reversed in all other respects.

    Discussion.

    The trial court erred when it rejected Plaintiffs’ offer to prove the possible causes of the injuries were directly attributable to Ford and Maywood Bell. Accordingly, it must be presumed that when the vehicle was delivered to Vandermark by Maywood Bell, the piston in the master cylinder assembly already had the defect which subsequently caused the accident. Such a defect was likely caused by some negligence on the part of Ford. However, Ford argues that it relinquished control of the vehicle when it was delivered to Maywood Bell and thus may not be held liable for negligence or strictly liable just for putting the vehicle into the marketplace. In Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 377 P.2d 897, 900 (Cal. 1963), the court held that “a manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when an article he places on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being.” These rules for strict liability focus responsibility for defects, whether negligently caused or not, upon the manufacturer of the completed product and apply regardless of what part of the process the manufacturer may delegate to a third party. Here, Ford states that it does not deliver its cars to authorized dealers ready to be driven off the lot. Instead, Ford relies on the dealers to make the final inspections, corrections, and adjustments necessary to ensure that the vehicles are ready to be driven. Ford cannot delegate its duty to Maywood Bell to ensure that a vehicle is free from dangerous defects. Therefore, it cannot escape liability by arguing that the dealer is at fault for resulting injuries due to a vehicle defect. Because Plaintiffs introduced, or offered to introduce, evidence that showed that Ford delivered a vehicle to Maywood Bell with a defect, the trial court erred in dismissing the breach of warranty and negligence causes of action as to Ford. Additionally, Plaintiffs argues that Maywood Bell is also strictly liable for the injuries sustained. Maywood Bell claims that Greenman only applies to actions against manufacturers of products. However, like manufacturers, retailers are engaged in the business of distributing goods into the public marketplace and are an integral part of ensuring that products do not result in injuries to consumers. The imposition of strict liability upon a retailer, as well as a manufacturer, provides protection to an injured plaintiff and allows the ability to distribute the costs of such protection in the course of business. 


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