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Kridler v. Ford Motor Co.

decided: March 2, 1970.


Forman, Seitz and Adams, Circuit Judges.

Author: Adams


ADAMS, Circuit Judge.

This action for personal injuries is another case which tests the expanding liability of automobile manufacturers and distributors to purchasers in situations where the product is alleged to be defective and an accident thereafter occurs. The suit here is based on express and implied warranties made in connection with the sale of an automobile manufactured by defendant Ford Motor Company. It arises as a result of an accident which happened on August 24, 1963.

The case was tried before the Honorable Gerald J. Weber and a jury in November, 1968. The jury failed to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared. The Court thereafter granted defendants' motion for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the failure of the jury to arrive at a verdict. Plaintiffs moved for a new trial, and on July 10, 1969, the District Court granted the motion conditioned on the vacation of the judgment by this Court. [Kridler v. Ford Motor Co., 300 F. Supp. 1163 (W.D.Pa.1969)] Mr. Kridler appealed from the entry of judgment for the defendants.

Mr. Kridler purchased a new 1963 Ford '300' from Zook Motors on March 28, 1963. Shortly after the purchase, Kridler began to drive the car 106 miles a day to and from work, and immediately encountered steering difficulties. He described the steering as "hard steering" which caused the car to handle "like a truck", making both left and right turns very difficult. He testified that between the time of purchase and the accident the steering problems were so severe that he complained and returned the vehicle to the dealer twenty-four times. The car was operated approximately 12,700 miles in the five months prior to the accident. During that time, Kridler had to replace the front set of tires twice because of excessive wear.

On the day of the accident, Mr. and Mrs. Kridler were proceeding on Route 208. The weather was sunny and the road was dry. As Mr. Kridler drove up a hill, he saw a vehicle in front of him slow down. Kridler took his foot off the gas and "coasted up the hill". When he reached the top of the hill, he was aware of six cars in front of him. The driver of the front car in the line was in the process of making a right hand turn, and the driver immediately in front of the Kridlers, two to three car lengths away, applied the brakes. At this time, the Kridlers were travelling 10 to 15 miles per hour. When Mr. Kridler applied the brakes, his car went out of control and began a series of gyrations, bouncing up and down, from one side to the other. Ultimately, the car went sideways into a skid and off the road into a driveway.

After the accident, a mechanic found that the tie rod from the Kridler car was bent considerably, causing the front wheels to set at an odd angle so that the automobile could not be operated. The plaintiffs' expert testified that the tie rod was defective. His opinion was based on testimony that the Kridler car had excessive tire wear, uncertain steering characteristics and that after the accident the tie rod was found bent.

Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, as we are required to do on an appeal from a directed verdict for defendants, it appears there was sufficient evidence to require that the case be re-submitted to the jury.

The parties in this case assume that Pennsylvania law is controlling on the quantum of evidence necessary to establish a jury question on the issue of causation. Although there has been some dispute in other cases whether state or federal law governs this point, this Court previously considered the question and found that there is no difference in the standard followed in the Pennsylvania courts and in the federal courts. See Neville Chemical Co. v. Union Carbide Corp., 422 F.2d 1205 (3d Cir.1970); Rumsey v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 408 F.2d 89, 91 (3d Cir.1969) (en banc); Denneny v. Siegel, 407 F.2d 433 (3d Cir.1969). The standard used in Pennsylvania is set forth in Smith v. Bell Telephone Co., 397 Pa. 134, 153 A.2d 477 (1959) and Jones v. Treegoob, 433 Pa. 225, 249 A.2d 352 (1969). Under these decisions a case must be submitted to the jury if "the evidence presented [is] such that by reasoning from it, without resort to prejudice or guess, a jury can reach the conclusion sought by plaintiff, and not that that conclusion must be the only one which logically can be reached. It is not necessary, under Pennsylvania law, that every fact or circumstance point unerringly to liability; it is enough that there be sufficient facts for the jury to say reasonably that the preponderance favors liability. * * *" 397 Pa. at 138, 153 A.2d at 479-480.

The present suit was brought under a theory of breach of warranty. The District Court did not decide, and the parties do not raise on appeal, any question as to the interpretation of the warranties. The sole issue here is whether the District Judge erred in his decision that the plaintiffs produced insufficient evidence to establish the defective condition of the car as the proximate cause of the accident.

The Pennsylvania case closest in point was decided by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania after Judge Weber filed his opinion. MacDougall v. Ford Motor Co., 214 Pa.Super. 384, 257 A.2d 676 (1969), allocatur denied, was a suit for property damage brought under § 402A of the Restatement of Torts by a purchaser of a Ford Comet station wagon which went out of control after the plaintiff-driver experienced difficulty with the steering. Judge Spaulding, speaking for a unanimous Superior Court, found that the testimony of the wife-plaintiff "permits a jury finding that a malfunction of the steering mechanism caused the accident." 214 Pa.Super. at 387, 257 A.2d at 678. Mrs. MacDougall testified that she was having difficulty "controlling her car", "it was handling badly", and the steering seemed to "stick". 214 Pa.Super. at 385, 257 A.2d at 677. After driving 50 miles Mrs. MacDougall could not control the steering wheel and the car went off the road. The crux of the Court's decision in MacDougall is that in suits under § 402A a plaintiff's proof of a "mechanical malfunction * * * is circumstantial evidence of the unfitness of the equipment." Judge Spaulding also stated that, "Proof of the special defect in construction or design causing a mechanical malfunction is not an essential element in establishing breach of warranty." 214 Pa.Super. at 389, 390, 257 A.2d at 670, 680.*fn1 Since the same standards apply in a suit for breach of warranty as in a suit for violation of § 402A, Kassab v. Central Soya, 432 Pa. 217, 246 A.2d 848, 856 (1968), the evidence in the present case must be examined in light of MacDougall to determine whether the trial court here was in error in directing a verdict for the defendants.

Mr. Kridler testified that several weeks after he purchased his car he complained to Zook Motors of steering problems. Although Kridler owned the car for five months at the time of the accident, he had taken it to Zook Motors for repairs 24 times. The car caused the tires to wear at an abnormally excessive rate -- it had three sets within the five month period. Kridler described the accident as follows:

"We were going down Route 8 -- that is my wife and I -- and there were six cars ahead of me, and there was a little hill going up and then, as you got to the top, it broke down, and there were six cars ahead of me. And they started to brake, put their brakes on, because the head car was going to turn to the right on Route 208. When they stopped, I -- as ...

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