Vehicle repair shops have no legal duty to warn customers of obvious safety hazards, the Colorado Court of Appeals has ruled in a suit against a Denver dealership whose customer declined to replace a malfunctioning seat belt retractor.
Imposing such a duty would subject repair shops to 'a burden of potentially immeasurable magnitude,' the three-judge panel said.
'There exists potential for danger in almost any problem an individual has with a car, ranging from worn windshield wiper blades to faulty brakes,' the court said. 'Requiring a repair shop to warn of the potential danger in each situation would increase both the time and cost to repair cars.'
The plaintiff's lawyer said he will ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision and, if unsuccessful, will ask the Colorado Supreme Court to review the case.
In 1989, the driver's seat belt retractor in David Campbell's 1983 Toyota Land Cruiser failed, leaving excessive slack. His wife then modified the belt by folding and securing the slack with a locking clip from a child car safety seat.
NO REPAIR ORDERED
In 1992, the Campbells brought the car to Burt Toyota-Daihatsu Inc. for unrelated repairs and asked about the seat belt. The dealership told them the retractor had to be replaced for the seat belt to work properly, the court said, but they declined to do so.
The next year, Campbell died in a crash while wearing the seat belt in its modified condition.
The estate sued Burt in Ara-pahoe County District Court. A jury assessed about $1.1 million in damages, with Burt found liable for 25 percent - about $350,000 with interest. The rest of the fault was shared among the Campbells and two other drivers involved in the crash.
The appeals court unanimously overturned the verdict against the dealership, ruling that Burt, as a repair shop, had no obligation to warn the Campbells of the risks posed by the modified seat belt.
It cited the widow's admission that she had read the manual that came with the child's safety seat, and it said the seat was intended only for children weighing 40 pounds or less.
She also testified that she had not read the seat belt section of the Land Cruiser's owner's manual from Toyota or the manual's introductory statement that any modification of the car could affect safety.
THE PLAINTIFF'S VIEW
Even if she and her husband actually had not read those parts of the manual, the law presumes that they did read the warnings and would have heeded them, the court continued.
'Given the Campbells' knowledge that the seat belt was broken and the warnings in the owner's manual, the danger posed to them was obvious, and they either knew or were on notice from the contents of the manual that the seat belt was not safe,' said Appeals Judge Daniel Taubman.
The court said requiring repair shops to warn of obvious dangers might deter them from 'their most important function - ensuring vehicle safety - because they might limit the kinds of work they would do.'
The estate's lawyer, Richard Rufner of Englewood, said the dealership had been negligent for failing to warn the Campbells adequately, saying they had no reason to believe the modification was unsafe and opted not to replace it because of the $180 cost.
'When a specialist knows or should know the customer is unaware of a dangerous condition, it has a duty to properly advise the customer of the hazard,' Rufner said.
But Burt's lawyer, James Dieterich of Denver, said the Campbells asked only whether the seat belt could be fixed or was under warranty, not whether their modification was unsafe.
Beyond that, Dieterich added, 'Anyone knows you don't fiddle around with seat belts.'