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Wolf v. Toyota Motor Corp.

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

December 9, 2013

NATALIE WOLF, as the Administratrix of the ESTATES OF JOY L. WARD, JOHN B. WARD, SARAH J. WARD, and as Guardian and Next Friend of HAILEY WARD, a minor, Plaintiffs
v.
TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATION, a Japanese corporation; TOYOTA MOTOR SALES U.S.A., INC., a California Corporation, and CF SCHWARTZ MOTOR CO., INC., a Delaware corporation, Defendants.

Submitted: September 9, 2013

Upon Defendants Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc., and CF Schwartz Motor Co., Inc.'s Motion for Reargument.

Upon Defendants Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc., and CF Schwartz Motor Co., Inc.'s November 21, 2012 Motion for Leave to File a Third-Party Complaint.

Timothy E. Lengkeek, Esquire, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Plaintiffs; Larry E. Coben, Esquire, Anapol Schwartz, Scottsdale, Arizona, and Gregory S. Spizer, Esquire, Anapol Schwartz, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Attorneys pro hac vice for Plaintiffs.

James M. Kron, Esquire and Somers S. Price, Jr., Esquire, Potter Anderson & Corroon LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Defendants; Joel A. Dewey, Esquire, DLA Piper LLP (US), Baltimore, Maryland, Attorney pro hac vice for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Richard R. Cooch, R.J.

I. INTRODUCTION

These motions stem from a tragic accident which resulted in the deaths of three members of the Ward family: father John, wife Joy, and daughter Sarah. On the morning of August 23, 2009, the Ward family was involved in a head-on collision on SR 30 in Sussex County[1] when Darien Custis ("Custis"), driving a 1994 Mercedes-Benz owned by John F. Warfield ("Warfield"), was distracted by reaching for a bottle of iced tea on the car's floor.[2] The sole survivor in the Ward's Toyota was 8 year old daughter Hailey.[3] Custis was essentially unhurt[4] in the accident and later pled guilty to vehicular homicides involving John, Joy, and Sarah.[5]

Natalie Wolf, as the Administratrix of the Ward family estates and Guardian and Next Friend of Hailey, filed a "crashworthiness"[6] products liability claim against the Toyota Defendants[7] on August 18, 2011.[8] Plaintiffs claim that defects in the Toyota Camry driven by the Wards "enhanced" their injuries. Plaintiffs elected not to include Custis or Warfield as defendants in their complaint. The claim against Warfield is that of negligent entrustment.

On November 21, 2012, the final day allowable pursuant to the Trial Scheduling Order to permit a motion to join additional parties, the Toyota Defendants filed a motion requesting leave to join Custis and Warfield as third-party defendants under Superior Court Civil Rule 14(a).[9] This Court issued an opinion denying the motion on May 29, 2013.[10] The Toyota Defendants then filed the pending Motion for Reargument. Trial is currently scheduled for April 6, 2015.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court's Order of May 29, 2013 denying the Toyota Defendants' Motion for Leave to File a Third-Party Complaint is VACATED. Defendants' Motion for Reargument and their original Motion for Leave to File a Third-Party Complaint are both GRANTED.

II. ISSUES PRESENTED

There are two issues before the Court. The first is whether the Court misapprehended the law to the extent that the Motion for Reargument should be granted. The second is whether, pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 14(a), leave should be granted to the Toyota Defendants so that they may add Custis and Warfield as third-party defendants.

III. THE PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

A. Defendants' Contentions

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

The Toyota Defendants contend they are entitled to "indemnification and/or contribution" from Custis and Warfield due to Custis' negligent operation and Warfield's alleged negligent entrustment of the vehicle to Custis.[11] The Toyota Defendants argue that their claims against Warfield and Custis arise out of and relate to the same facts and circumstances as Plaintiffs' "crashworthiness" claim and, although they do not argue that Custis and Warfield have any liability for enhanced injuries due solely from the alleged "crashworthiness" of the vehicle, they seek leave of the Court to add them to the action so the claim includes "all parties that may be legally responsible for Plaintiffs' damages."[12]

The Toyota Defendants posit that under Delaware law they must join Custis and Warfield in the action or be forever barred from doing so.[13] The Toyota Defendants contend that excluding Custis and Warfield from the case will prevent the jury from properly allocating fault and damages.[14] They take the position that this restriction, combined with their assertion that Hailey Ward will present as an extremely sympathetic plaintiff, could lead to "severe[ ] prejudice" against the Toyota Defendants because "there is no one else to hold responsible for her injuries."[15]

b. The Toyota Defendants' Motion for Reargument

The Toyota Defendants contend that their Motion for Reargument, filed pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 59(e), should be granted because the Court misapprehended the law when it denied their Motion for Leave to File a Third-Party Complaint.[16] The Toyota Defendants argue that the Court erroneously concluded the defects in the Camry were a superseding cause in Plaintiffs' claim, because Delaware law holds that there may be more than one proximate cause of an injury.[17] The Toyota Defendants maintain that this determination should be left to a jury.[18]

The Toyota Defendants also assert the Court erred when it may have suggested that the Toyota Defendants were trying "to substitute Custis and Warfield as the primary defendant[s]."[19] The Toyota Defendants contend they are seeking to include all parties, including the alleged original tortfeasors Custis and Warfield, who the Toyota Defendants allege are partially responsible for Plaintiffs' damages so that a jury can properly apportion liability.[20]

The Toyota Defendants also contend that the Court failed to consider several defense arguments including: 1) that the Joint Tortfeasor release signed by Custis and Warfield expressly allows for apportionment of damages in this claim, [21] and 2) that the Toyota Defendants are required to join Custis and Warfield at this time or be forever barred from asserting a claim against them.[22]

The Toyota Defendants lastly contend that the cases upon which Plaintiffs now rely to support their position are representative of a minority view that is slowly eroding across the country.[23]

B. Plaintiffs' Contentions

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

Plaintiffs contend that the presence of Custis and Warfield is "irrelevant" in a "crashworthiness" claim under Delaware law.[24] Plaintiffs rely on Mazda MotorCorporation v. Lindahl[25] for their assertion that the circumstances of the initial collision should not be brought into this "crashworthiness" claim.[26]Mazda focused primarily on burden of proof but also holds that initial and enhanced ...


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