The Washington state Court of Appeals has affirmed a verdict for the former Chrysler Corp. in a product liability suit. The suit alleged that contaminated brake fluid in a 1989 Plymouth Voyager caused brake failure and a fatal accident.
The court refused to order a new trial in a suit brought by the estate of 19-month-old Connor Scripa, who died in 1994 when the minivan rolled down an embankment at a state park and struck him while he stood by a picnic table at his family's campsite.
The van's owner, Scott Rich, testified that he had noticed a loss of braking power when he approached the campground entrance. Then as he pulled into his own campsite near the victim, the brakes failed, preventing him from stopping, he said.
The state patrol's Major Accident Investigation Team tested the van extensively and concluded that the brakes had failed, the court said.
The boy's estate filed a product liability suit against Chrysler Corp. for failing to warn vehicle owners about the dangers of contaminated brake fluid and for failing to recommend periodic fluid changes. It settled claims against Rich and the state for $250,000 each.
Chrysler, now DaimlerChrysler Corp., denied liability and offered evidence that a non-Chrysler garage had replaced the original plastic or phenolic pistons with aftermarket steel pistons. It introduced evidence that the fluid would not have boiled, as the estate contended, if the brakes had been fitted with phenolic rather than steel pistons.
Chrysler attributed the accident to driver error, including Rich's failure to obey a warning sign to drive in a lower gear and to attempt to park properly in his own campsite, defense lawyer Bruce Wold of San Francisco said.
After a month-long trial in King County Superior Court, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Chrysler.
The appeals court let the verdict stand. It rejected the argument that a Chrysler witness should not have been permitted to give his opinion on the statistical improbability that the brake fluid in the Voyager had boiled.
That witness, an engineer working with the office of the Chrysler counsel, testified that the case was the first ever to allege that brake fluid in any of the 'several million' Chrysler minivans driven for 'hundreds of billions of miles' had boiled, the court said. It said the jury was properly allowed to hear the engineer's opinion because it was based on his perception of reasonably reliable evidence.
Bruce McDermott, a Seattle lawyer for the estate, said, 'We certainly have reason to believe boil has happened in other Chrysler vehicles' but couldn't introduce testimony on that point because of 'evidentiary problems.'
The appeals court also held that a new trial is unwarranted despite Wold's violation of the trial judge's order not to discuss his own presence at Chrysler's tests of Rich's vehicle.
McDermott said his client has not decided whether to appeal further.