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Dawson v. Chrysler Corp.

decided: September 11, 1980.

RICHARD F. DAWSON AND DIANA DAWSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND DIANA DAWSON AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF BRYAN DAWSON, A MINOR
v.
CHRYSLER CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFF V. TOWNSHIP OF PENNSAUKEN, DELTA LEASING COMPANY AND CHERRY HILL DODGE, INC., THIRD PARTY DEFENDANTS V. TOWNSHIP OF PENNSAUKEN, FOURTH PARTY PLAINTIFF V. CUMBERLAND MUTUAL FIRE INSURANCE COMPANY, FOURTH PARTY DEFENDANT V. PEERLESS INSURANCE COMPANY, FOURTH PARTY DEFENDANT DEFENDANT, CHRYSLER CORPORATION, APPELLANT



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY (C.A. No. 76-1651)

Before Adams, Van Dusen and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Adams

Opinion OF THE COURT

This appeal from a jury verdict and entry of judgment in favor of the plaintiffs arises out of a New Jersey automobile accident in which a police officer was seriously injured. The legal questions in this diversity action, that are governed by New Jersey law, are relatively straight-forward. The public policy questions, however, which are beyond the competence of this Court to resolve and with which Congress ultimately must grapple, are complex and implicate national economic and social concerns.

In adjudicating this appeal, we first decide the question whether the district court erred in denying the defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. We then turn to the issue whether certain evidentiary mistakes were committed, which would require a new trial. The third substantive question relates to the propriety of the computation of prejudgment interest. Finally, we address the troubling public policy dilemma namely, that under existing federal law individual juries in the various states are permitted, in effect, to establish national automobile safety standards. The result of such an arrangement, predictably, is not only incoherence in the safety requirements set by disparate juries, but also the possibility that a standard established by a jury in a particular case will conflict with other policies regarding the economics of the automobile industry as well as energy conservation programs.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On September 7, 1974, Richard F. Dawson, while in the employ of the Pennsauken Police Department, was seriously injured as a result of an automobile accident that occurred in Pennsauken, New Jersey. As Dawson was driving on a rain-soaked highway, responding to a burglar alarm, he lost control of his patrol car a 1974 Dodge Monaco. The car slid off the highway, over a curb, through a small sign, and into an unyielding steel pole that was fifteen inches in diameter. The car struck the pole in a backwards direction at a forty-five degree angle on the left side of the vehicle; the point of impact was the left rear wheel well. As a result of the force of the collision, the vehicle literally wrapped itself around the pole. The pole ripped through the body of the car and crushed Dawson between the seat and the "header" area of the roof, located just above the windshield. The so-called "secondary collision" of Dawson with the interior of the automobile dislocated Dawson's left hip and ruptured his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. As a result of the injuries, Dawson is now a quadriplegic. He has no control over his body from the neck down, and requires constant medical attention.

Dawson, his wife, and their son brought suit in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia against the Chrysler Corporation, the manufacturer of the vehicle in which Dawson was injured. Chrysler removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) (1976), on the grounds of diversity, and subsequently had the case transferred to the District Court for the District of New Jersey.*fn1 Id. § 1404(a). The plaintiffs' claims were based on theories of strict products liability and breach of implied warranty of fitness. They alleged that the patrol car was defective because it did not have a full, continuous steel frame extending through the door panels, and a cross-member running through the floor board between the posts located between the front and rear doors of the vehicle. Had the vehicle been so designed, the Dawsons alleged, it would have "bounced" off the pole following relatively slight penetration by the pole into the passenger space.

Expert testimony was introduced by the Dawsons to prove that the existing frame of the patrol car was unable to withstand side impacts at relatively low speed, and that the inadequacy of the frame permitted the pole to enter the passenger area and to injure Dawson. The same experts testified that the improvements in the design of the frame that the plaintiffs proposed were feasible and would have prevented Dawson from being injured as he was. According to plaintiffs' expert witnesses, a continuous frame and cross-member would have deflected the patrol car away from the pole after a minimal intrusion into the passenger area and, they declared, Dawson likely would have emerged from the accident with only a slight injury.

In response, Chrysler argued that it had no duty to produce a "crashproof" vehicle, and that, in any event, the patrol car was not defective. Expert testimony for Chrysler established that the design and construction of the 1974 Dodge Monaco complied with all federal vehicle safety standards,*fn2 and that deformation*fn3 of the body of the vehicle is desirable in most crashes because it absorbs the impact of the crash and decreases the rate of deceleration on the occupants of the vehicle. Thus, Chrysler's experts asserted that, for most types of automobile accidents, the design offered by the Dawsons would be less safe than the existing design. They also estimated that the steel parts that would be required in the model suggested by the Dawsons would have added between 200 and 250 pounds to the weight, and approximately $300 to the price of the vehicle. It was also established that the 1974 Dodge Monaco's unibody construction was stronger than comparable Ford and Chevrolet vehicles.

After all testimony had been introduced, Chrysler moved for a directed verdict, which the district judge denied. The jury thereupon returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs. In answers to a series of special interrogatories, the jurors concluded that (1) the body structure of the 1974 Dodge Monaco was defective and unreasonably dangerous; (2) Chrysler breached its implied warranty that the vehicle would be fit for use as a police car; (3) as a result of the defective design and the breach of warranty, Dawson sustained more severe injuries than he would have incurred had Chrysler used the alternative design proposed by Dawsons expert witnesses; (4) the defective design was the proximate cause of Dawson's enhanced injuries; and (5) Dawson's failure to use a seatbelt was not a proximate cause of his injuries. The jury awarded Mr. Dawson $2,064,863.19 for his expenses, disability, and pain and suffering, and granted Mrs. Dawson $60,000.00 for loss of consortium and loss of services. After the district court entered judgment,*fn4 Chrysler moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, alternatively for a new trial. The court denied both motions. The Dawsons then requested pre-judgment interest of eight percent per annum of the damages award, accruing from the time suit was instituted to the date of the judgment. The trial judge granted the request in the amounts of.$388,012.53 for Mr. Dawson and $11,274.72 for Mrs. Dawson.

On appeal, Chrysler raises the following contentions: (1) It owed no duty to the Dawsons to manufacture an automobile that would withstand the type of collision that occurred here. (2) The evidence presented by the Dawsons was insufficient to establish that the patrol car was defective and unreasonably dangerous or that Chrysler breached an implied warranty of fitness. (3) The evidence did not sufficiently establish that Dawson's injuries in fact were caused by the allegedly defective design. (4) The trial court erred in permitting Dawsons' attorney to use documents containing the results of automobile safety tests in cross-examining one of Chrysler's expert witnesses without first establishing the reliability of the documents. (5) The district court erred in permitting the jurors to take into the jury room a copy of portions of a Calspan automobile safety report. (6) The trial judge erred in granting the Dawsons' motion for prejudgment interest.

We affirm.

II. DISCUSSION

At the outset, it is important, indeed crucial, to point out, that the substantive issues of this diversity case are controlled by the law of New Jersey.

A. Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict

Dawsons' claims are premised on two legal theories strict tort liability and breach of an implied contractual warranty. As we recognized in Huddell v. Levin, 537 F.2d 726 (3d Cir. 1976), under the law of New Jersey, the governing principles of strict liability and the implied warranty theory are identical.*fn5 Accordingly, we proceed with the adjudication of this appeal pursuant to the rubric of strict liability.

Under New Jersey law, a defendant in a tort action may not be held liable unless he owes a duty of care to the plaintiff. The question of duty is to be resolved in the first instance by the trial court. If such a duty exists, then a jury in a strict liability action must decide two factual questions: (1) whether the product at issue was defective; and (2) whether the defective product was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries. Suter v. San Angelo Foundry & Machine Co., 81 N.J. 150, 176, 406 A.2d 140, 153 (1979). With these guidelines in mind, we turn to the contentions set forth by Chrysler in its appeal from the denial of its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

1. Duty

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently reviewed the concept of duty in tort actions and concluded that "(t)he question is ultimately one of public policy," and the answer "depends upon a balancing of the nature of the risk, the public interest and the relationship of the parties." Id. at 172, 406 A.2d at 151. The policies underlying the concept of duty include "the economic good of the group, practical administration of the law, justice between the parties and other considerations relative to the environment out of which the case arose." Id. (quoting Green, Duties, Risks, Causation, Doctrines, 41 Texas L.Rev. 42, 45 (1962)).

Chrysler urges that the district court erred in holding that it had a duty of care towards Dawson because it had no obligation to manufacture a vehicle that would protect a passenger against the type of harm suffered by Dawson. As we understand Chrysler's argument, however, it appears to be directed, not to Chrysler's duty vis-a-vis Dawson, but rather to the question whether the patrol car was defective inasmuch as it did not adequately prevent Dawson from sustaining serious injury. For, as we stated in Huddell, it is "beyond peradventure that an automobile manufacturer today has some legal obligation to design and produce a reasonably crashworthy vehicle. . . . Rephrased in the terminology of strict liability, the manufacturer must consider accidents as among the "intended' uses of its products," and passengers injured in such accidents as among the group of reasonably foreseeable plaintiffs. 537 F.2d at 735. Thus, Chrysler had a duty to protect Dawson, as well as other users of its vehicles, against harm resulting from automobile ...


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