The Ohio Court of Appeals has allowed a plaintiff to pursue her design defect case against General Motors without expert testimony, saying she can rely in large measure on a Chevrolet trade service bulletin about a van door problem.
The court reinstated the design defect claim involving the hinges on the cargo door of Emma Atkins' 1995 converted Chevy Van.
It may be the first time in Ohio that an appellate court allowed a product liability suit involving a vehicle component to proceed to trial without an expert witness, according to David Salyer, a Dayton lawyer who represents Atkins.
The suit claims that Atkins suffered a serious soft-tissue injury to her right hip while trying to close the door, which had stuck.
After the incident, she reported the problem to the dealership where she had purchased the van, which was badged as a Chevrolet Pacesetter by the conversion company.
A service technician replaced the hinges, kept the old ones for 30 days under the dealership's standard practice and then discarded them.
Another dealership later gave Atkins a GM trade service bulletin about potential problems with hinges on 1986-95 Chevy Vans.
The bulletin discussed the nature of the problem, the difficulties owners may encounter and the cause: metal-to-metal interaction between the hinge pin and pin bushing that could allow corrosion or contamination to dry out the pin lubricants.
The bulletin also described how to correct the problem.
Atkins sued GM for defective design and defective manufacturing, but the case was dismissed without trial in Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas because she offered no expert testimony to support her claims.
The appeals court ruled that the design defect claim may proceed.
'In some cases, circumstantial evidence alone, without expert testimony, will suffice to document the existence of a design defect,' the court said.
Even without expert testimony, Atkins presented enough evidence to let a jury decide whether the hinges were defective, the court said.
The trade service bulletin supported her assertion that the design 'rendered the product's performance less safe than the ordinary consumer would expect, resulting in injury,' the court said.
However, the appeals court said the manufacturing defect claim was properly thrown out because there was no evidence the hinges failed to meet GM specifications or performance standards.
Salyer said the same damages are available under either claim.
GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan called the decision disappointing, adding: 'While we regret the injury sustained by Ms. Atkins, we believe that the design of the cargo door hinge on her vehicle is safe and did not cause her injury.'