A federal appeals court in New Orleans has unanimously upheld a jury verdict in favor of American Isuzu Motors Inc. in a Trooper rollover suit.
The court rejected arguments by the driver's estate that critical evidence, including memoranda by staff members of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was wrongly withheld from the jury.
In July 1994, Bernard Allen died in a single-vehicle accident when his 1987 Trooper rolled over. His estate sued in U.S. District Court in Houston, claiming the vehicle was unreasonably dangerous because it had a propensity to roll over. The product-liability complaint also alleged that the Trooper was not crashworthy because the windshield design did not prevent Allen from being thrown from the vehicle. The jury found in favor of Isuzu, and the estate took the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In an opinion by Judge Fortunato Benavides, the panel said three NHTSA staff memos were properly excluded as evidence because they were merely preliminary or interim 'evaluative opinions.'
'The memoranda do not reflect factual finding of NHTSA. Rather, they embody the positions and opinions of individual staff members, which the agency ultimately declined to accept,' the court said.
The three-judge panel also said the trial judge acted correctly in excluding a 1996 Consumer Reports article. The story gave 1995 and 1996 Troopers a 'not acceptable' rating because of tests showing a propensity to roll over. However, the article specifically disclaimed applicability to earlier-model Troopers, which had a slightly different suspension.
Allowing the jury to consider the article as evidence would have created a significant 'risk of confusing the issues and misleading the jury,' the appeals court said.
Last, the court found no error in barring one of the estate's expert witnesses from testifying about the 'crashworthiness and unreasonable dangerousness' of the 1987 Trooper.
The estate's attorney, Paul Crist of Houston, said no further appeal is likely.
Isuzu spokesman Daniel McCue said the company was gratified by the appellate decision.