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Wolf v. Toyota Motor Corp.

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

May 29, 2013

Natalie Wolf, as the Administratrix of the Estates of Joy L. Ward, John B. Ward, and Sarah J. Ward and as Guardian and Next Friend of Hailey Ward, a minor,
v.
Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc., and CF Schwartz Motor Co., Inc.,

Submitted: March 6, 2013

On Defendants' Motion for Leave to File a Third-Party Complaint.

Timothy E. Lengkeek, Esquire Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP Attorney for Plaintiffs

Anapol Schwartz, Esquire Larry E. Cohen, Esquire Attorneys pro hac vice for Plaintiffs

James M. Kron, Esquire Potter Anderson & Corroon LLP Attorney for Defendants Toyota Motor Corporation Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. C.F. Schwartz Motor Co., Inc.

Richard R. Cooch, R.J.

Dear Counsel:

Plaintiffs Hailey Ward and Estates of Joy L. Ward, John B. Ward, and Sarah J. Ward claim that defects in the Wards' 2007 Toyota Camry's design aggravated or "enhanced" their injuries in a crash. Defendants Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc., and C.F. Schwartz Motor Co., Inc. (collectively, "Toyota") contend that Darien Custis' and John F. Warfield's negligence caused the Wards' crash and contributed to their injuries and deaths. Therefore, Toyota asks the Court for leave to file a third-party complaint against Custis and Warfield. But because their alleged negligence did not legally cause the Wards' alleged additional injuries, the motion is DENIED.

I. FACTS

On August 23, 2009, the Wards – mother Joy L. Ward, father John B. Ward, and daughters Sarah J. Ward and Hailey Ward – were heading north on State Route 30 in Sussex County.[1] While driving his father's Mercedes-Benz south, Darien Custis reached for a bottle of iced tea on the car's floor.[2] The Mercedes-Benz crossed the center line and struck the front of the Wards' 2007 Toyota Camry.[3]Joy, John, and Sarah died; Hailey and Custis lived.[4] Custis later pled guilty to the vehicular homicides of Joy, John, and Sarah.[5]

Natalie Wolf, the administratrix of Joy's, John's, and Sarah's estates and Hailey's guardian and next friend, has sued Toyota, claiming that the Camry was not "crashworthy."[6] Plaintiffs' only claim is that defects in the Camry's design "enhanced" the Wards' injuries.[7] Plaintiffs did not sue Custis or John F. Warfield, the owner of the Mercedes-Benz and Custis' father.[8]

On May 31, 2012, the Court ordered that Plaintiffs and Toyota join any other parties by November 21, 2012.[9] On this day, Toyota filed the instant motion, in which it asked the Court for leave to implead Custis and Warfield under Superior Court Civil Rule 14(a).[10]

In the Motion, Toyota argues that Custis' and Warfield's negligence was a legal cause of the Wards' "enhanced" injuries.[11] On this basis, Toyota asserts that it may implead Custis and Warfield because, if Toyota is found liable, then

1. Toyota, Custis, and Warfield are joint tortfeasors,
2. thus Toyota has a right to indemnity or contribution from Custis and Warfield.[12]

Further, Toyota claims that denying the Motion would prejudice Toyota because the jury will empathize with the Wards' surviving daughter, Hailey Ward, and assign a greater share of liability to Toyota, as it will appear that no other source of recovery is available to her.

In opposition, Plaintiffs respond that Toyota, Custis, and Warfield are not joint tortfeasors because Plaintiffs seek damages only for harm separate and distinct from the harm that Custis' and Warfield's negligence inflicted.[13] That is, Plaintiffs argue that Custis' and Warfield's negligence was not a legal cause of the Wards' "enhanced" injuries and hence Toyota may not implead Custis and Warfield.[14]

II. DISCUSSION

Superior Court Civil Rule 14(a) permits a defendant to implead a third party if it "is or may be liable to" the defendant for at least part of the plaintiff's claim.[15]This Court has long recognized the Rule's importance in enforcing the right of contribution:

The effect of this rule, in an action based on negligence, is to permit a defendant to implead joint tort-feasors from whom he may be entitled to contribution of all or part of the claim asserted against him by the plaintiff.[16]

A defendant may implead a third party under Rule 14(a) if the defendant and the third party are joint tortfeasors with regard to the plaintiff because

1. a right of contribution exists among them, [17] and
2. the defendant's right to contribution from the third party is contingent on the success of the plaintiff's claim.[18]

Toyota may implead Custis and Warfield under Rule 14(a) if Toyota, Custis, and Warfield are jointly and severally liable to Plaintiffs for the Wards' "enhanced" injuries – those which occurred because the Camry was not "crashworthy."[19]

In the Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that the Wards' Camry was not "crashworthy" because defects in the car's design aggravated the Wards' injuries.[20]Plaintiffs thus seek damages for the harm that the Wards suffered over and above what the collision would have caused but for the defects.[21] Plaintiffs must prove that the alleged defects in the Camry's design inflicted additional harm to the Wards:

To establish proximate cause in a crashworthiness case, the plaintiff must offer evidence that, but for the design defect, the injuries would not have been enhanced. In other words, there must be evidence that the design defect caused injuries over and above those that would have resulted had the product been properly designed.[22]

Plaintiffs can prevail only if they present evidence that would allow the jury to divide the Wards' injuries among the two possible causes.[23] If Plaintiffs prevail, then Toyota is liable for a distinct subset of the Wards' injuries – the additional harm – but Toyota is not liable for any other harm because the alleged defects did not cause the crash:

Any design defect not causing the accident would not subject the manufacturer to liability for the entire damage, but the manufacturer should be liable for that portion of the damage or injury caused by the defective design over and above the damage or injury that probably would have occurred as a result of the impact or collision absent the defective design.[24]

Further, Custis and Warfield are not liable for the additional harm because their negligence did not proximately or legally cause it.[25]

Under Delaware law, an act legally causes an injury only if, but for the act, the injury would not have happened; that is, the act must be a necessary condition for the injury's occurrence:

Delaware recognizes the traditional "but for" definition of proximate causation. Under the "but for" test, "[t]he defendant's conduct is a cause of the event if the event would not have occurred but for that conduct; conversely, the defendant's conduct is not a cause of the event, if the event would have occurred without it." Put another way, "a proximate cause is one which in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any efficient intervening cause, produces the injury and without which the result would not have occurred."[26]

Custis' and Warfield's negligence did not legally cause the Wards' "enhanced" injuries because any defect in the Camry's design is an "efficient intervening cause, " or a "superseding cause." In general, Toyota has a "duty to use reasonable care in the design of its vehicle[s] to avoid subjecting the[ir] user[s] to an unreasonably risk of injury in the event of a collision.[27] And once the Mercedes-Benz hit the Camry, Toyota's duty displaced part of Custis' and Warfield's duty to prevent harm resulting from their negligence. In other words, part of Custis' and Warfield's duty shifted to Toyota, which was in the best position to prevent any "enhanced" injuries. Any defect is thus a "superseding cause":

[W]hen . . . the court finds that full responsibility for control of the situation and prevention of the threatened harm has passed to [a] third person, his failure to act is then a superseding cause, which will relieve the original actor of liability.[28]

Further, this conclusion does not eviscerate the doctrine of comparative fault because the claim itself embraces a scheme of comparative fault.

In 1968, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit decided Larsen v. General Motors Corp., [29] the seminal case on the "crashworthiness" doctrine, the rule of contributory negligence still prevailed in 43 States.[30] The rule was, simply put, too harsh; it barred recovery even if the plaintiff's negligence was slight:

Except where the defendant has the last clear chance, the plaintiff's contributory negligence bars recovery against a defendant whose negligent conduct would otherwise make him liable to the plaintiff for the harm sustained by him.[31]

Courts subsequently recognized exceptions to the rule, including the last clear chance rule.[32] In some sense, the Larsen court followed this trend because the "crashworthiness" claim effectively imposed a scheme of comparative fault:

[T]he concept of "enhanced injury" effectively apportions fault and damages on a comparative basis; defendant is liable only for the increased injury caused by its own conduct, not for the injury resulting from the crash itself.[33]

Notions of comparative fault and apportionment are essential to the "crashworthiness" claim.

In evaluating a "crashworthiness" claim, the jury must apportion liability between

1. the party that caused the collision, and
2. the party that designed the car.

The "crashworthiness" claim's parameters strictly regulate this process. The second party is liable only for "enhanced" injuries. And the first party is not liable for those injuries because the collision is not a proximate cause of them; the collision merely provides a chance for any defect in the car's design to inflict harm.[34] This allocates liability to the party in the best position to prevent "enhanced harm" because the first party cannot right the core problem by simply driving safer.

Accidents are probable, if not inevitable, as the Larsen court recognized:

[A]n automobile manufacturer . . . is under a duty to use reasonable care in the design of its vehicle to avoid subjecting the user to an unreasonable risk of injury in the event of a collision. Collisions with or without fault of the user are clearly foreseeable by the manufacturer and are statistically inevitable.
The intended use and purpose of an automobile is to travel on the streets and highways, which travel more often than not is in close proximity to other vehicles and at speeds that carry the possibility, probability, and potential of injury-producing impacts. . . .[35]

The parties that design cars are in the best position to prevent future "enhanced" harm. And drivers are still incentivized to drive safely because they are liable for any harm that people would suffer even if no defects aggravated their injuries.

Because the collision's cause – Custis' and Warfield's negligence – is not a proximate cause of the Wards' injuries for which Plaintiffs seek relief,

1. Toyota, Custis, and Warfield are not joint tortfeasors because their actions did not concur to produce the Wards' alleged "enhanced injuries, "[36] and
2. thus Toyota has no right to contribution that is contingent on the success of Plaintiffs' claims.[37]

III. CONCLUSION

Toyota argues that Custis' and Warfield's negligence caused all of the Wards' injuries. But this is a defense – not a basis for a third-party claim.[38]Plaintiffs' claim presupposes that the collision hurt the Wards; their claims turn on the difference between

1. the harm that the Wards suffered due to the collision, and
2. the harm that the Wards would have suffered during the collision if their car was reasonably safe, merchantable, and fit for its particular purpose.

Because the collision's cause is not a proximate cause of the Wards' additional injuries, the motion is DENIED.[39]

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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