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Friedman v. General Motors Corp.

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Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff was waiting in line in his car to purchase gas. When it was his turn, he turned the ignition key on while the gear shift was in the “drive” position. The car suddenly leaped forward and crashed, resulting in plaintiff’s injury. He brought suit against defendant, the manufacturer of the car, alleging that the car was defective.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A defect in a product may be proven by circumstantial evidence, as long as a preponderance of the evidence establishes that the defect caused the accident even though all other possibilities have not been eliminated.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Where direct evidence is unavailable, a defect in a manufactured product existing at the time the product left the manufacturer may be proven by circumstantial evidence where a preponderance of that evidence establishes that the loss was caused by a defect and not other possibilities, although not all other possibilities need be eliminated.

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Facts.

Morton Friedman (plaintiff) was waiting in line in his 1966 Oldsmobile car to purchase gas. He turned his engine off while he waited. When it was his turn, Friedman turned the ignition key on the car while it in the “drive” position. The Oldsmobile leaped forward. Friedman was startled by the car’s sudden movement. He was unable to regain control of the car before it “ran wild” and crashed. Friedman and three members of his family were injured as a result. Friedman sued the car’s manufacturer, General Motors Corporation (“General Motors”) (defendant). Friedman alleged that the car he purchased from General Motors was defective. General Motors argued that the car’s start switch was not defective. Instead, General Motors contended that the car was in “neutral” when the ignition was switched, that Friedman shifted to “drive,” and that Friedman must have hit the accelerator rather than the brake. At trial, the judge granted General Motors’ motion for a directed verdict because Friedman did not prove that the car was defective when it left the factory. The intermediate appellate court reversed the trial judge’s decision. General Motors appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Issue.

Whether the plaintiff’s evidence was sufficient to overcome the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict?

Held.

Yes. Friedman’s evidence established a prima facie case of defect for which General Motors would be liable. The judgment of the appellate court is affirmed.

Dissent.

Justice Stern

It is often difficult and complicated to prove that a defect existed in a product. Although Friedman’s evidence may be sufficient to infer that a defect existed, that alone is not sufficient to establish a defect. Other causes could have resulted in the accident, including: driver error, failure of some part, or accidental or unwitting damage to the car. Therefore, the trial judge did not err in concluding that Friedman did not have sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case.

Discussion.

To sustain his allegation against General Motors, Friedman would have to prove: (1) the Oldsmobile was defective; (2) the defect existed at the time the product left the factory; and (3) that the defect was the direct and proximate cause of the accident and injuries. A defect in a products liability suit may be proven by circumstantial evidence. Here, a jury might have inferred that that car had always been started in “park”, thereby affording Friedman had no opportunity to discover the defect. In addition, the jury could have inferred that the car accelerated immediately when it was started, resulting in the accident. Ultimately, a jury might have reasonably concluded from the evidence that General Motors was guilty of manufacturing a defective automobile that directly and proximately caused the car accident.


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