A federal appeals court has refused to reinstate a product liability suit filed by a drunken driver, saying North Carolina bars the claim because the driver's own negligence caused the injuries.
The decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals means North Carolina's so-called contributory negligence law applies to product liability suits, said Susan Troxell, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents General Motors in the case.
Nancy Hill was driving her 1992 Chevrolet Corvette on an interstate highway in North Carolina in August 1993 when she lost control of the car, which struck a guardrail, spun into a concrete median and caught fire.
A blood test disclosed that she was legally drunk, and she later pleaded guilty to a traffic violation.
Hill's crashworthiness suit against GM alleged that the car was designed defectively because of an inadequate fire wall between the engine and the passenger compartment, problems with the seat belt and the routing of fuel system hoses, according to Troxell and Hill's lawyer, Morton Feder of Mineola, N.Y.
GM disputed the allegations.
The case was filed originally in New York, where Hill lives, but transferred to federal court in Charlotte, N.C., where a judge dismissed it without trial. The appeals court, based in Richmond, unanimously upheld that decision, saying North Carolina law rather than New York law controls the case.
'It is the state in which the accident occurred and the state whose criminal laws Hill violated,' the court said.
It noted that she was a North Carolina native who had been back there for 10 days before the crash, planned to stay there for a few weeks, had a North Carolina license and owned property there.
Troxell said the law in most other states, including New York, lets plaintiffs collect damages in product liability suits even if they partly caused their own injuries.
In such situations, the defendants must pay only the proportion of damages attributed to their negligence.
Feder said his client plans no further appeal: 'It's the end of the ball game.'