The Missouri Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial in a K-car fuel-tank defect suit stemming from an accident that killed two people and injured a third.
The court said Chrysler Corp. improperly tried to shift the jury's attention in a crashworthiness case from the design of the car to the driver's possible negligence in causing the accident.
In September 1994, Barbara Gerow was driving a 1984 Plymouth Reliant when the car left the road, straddled the guardrail and struck a bridge support pillar. Gasoline spilled from the tank, which had ruptured when it straddled the guardrail.
Her husband in the front passenger seat died in the fuel-fed fire, and Gerow died of her injuries 15 days later. Their daughter, who was in the back seat, survived.
'It was a terrible, terrible double death,' said the family's lawyer, Raul Redfearn of Kansas City.
The family sued Chrysler Corp., now known as DaimlerChrysler Corp., in Jackson County Circuit Court, alleging that the car was defective because of the underslung fuel tank positioned a quarter-inch above the floorpan in front of the rear axle. One of the plaintiffs' experts testified that the position of the tank was dangerous because it made the tank vulnerable to puncture in a 'reasonably foreseeable accident, and safer designs were available at the time of the vehicle's manufacture,' the appeals court said.
Their other experts testified that the injuries to Gerow and her husband would not have been fatal without the fire.
Chrysler denied that the Reliant was designed or manufactured defectively. It also contended the car was not being used in a reasonably anticipated way because Gerow's negligence caused or contributed to the crash.
The jury agreed with Chrysler at the end of the two-week trial.
'ERROR WAS IRRELEVANT'
However, the appeals court unanimously ruled that the family is entitled to a new trial because of Chrysler's inappropriate closing argument to the jury.
'The fact Barbara Gerow was driving on a highway was an intended use,' Appeals Judge Joseph Ellis said. 'Driver error which resulted in unintentional misuse was therefore reasonably foreseeable, and the nature of the error was irrelevant to proving an enhanced injury claim.'
Any error on her part that might have caused the original accident is irrelevant to the crashworthiness claim, according to the court.
'Chrysler's suggestion that Gerow fell asleep or was not alert inappropriately suggested comparative fault in the context of a claim that should have centered entirely on whether the design of the vehicle and placement of the fuel tank contributed to the fire.'
The three-judge panel also said the trial judge should have excluded testimony that the Missouri Transportation Department would not install the same type of guardrail today. It noted that the same style of guardrail remains common in Missouri and other states.
In addition, the court said local fire and police officials should have been allowed to testify about a fatal accident that had occurred two years before and within 100 yards of the Gerows'. The earlier crash also had involved a fuel tank ruptured by the guardrail, resulting in a fuel-fed fire, and was evidence that such accidents were foreseeable, it explained.
Redfearn, the family's lawyer, said the decision reinforces that 'manufacturers cannot escape responsibility' in crashworthiness cases 'by pointing the finger at the driver for causing the accident.'
Gary Cunningham, a Springfield lawyer for DamilerChrysler, said the company will ask the appeals court for another hearing and, if that fails, will ask the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case.