Unlatching Seatbelt Testimony Allowed In Ford Defect Case In New York

by Tara Arick on June 26, 2013 · 0 comments

in Product Liability

- From LexisNexis® Mealey’s™ Daily Legal News.

A federal judge in New York hearing a seatbelt products liability case on June 18 declined to exclude a plaintiff’s engineering expert testimony regarding inertial unlatching (Heather Harrison v. Ford Motor Co., No. 3:11-CV-0840 [MAD/DEP], N.D. N.Y.; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85137).

U.S. Judge Mae A. D’Agostino of the Northern District of New York declined summary judgment to defendant Ford Motor Co. on strict liability and negligence claims and to plaintiff Heather Harrison on Ford’s affirmative defense of comparative negligence.

The judge granted Ford summary judgment on Harrison’s breach of warranty claim because it was untimely filed.

Rollover Accident

Harrison became paralyzed after a 2010 rollover accident in which she was ejected from a 1987 Ford Bronco II. Harrison said she was wearing her seatbelt, but it failed. Ford alleges that Harrison was not buckled, had modified the buckle or did not properly care for the buckle and that her conduct caused the accident, resulting in her injury.

Harrison’s expert, Stephen R. Syson, opined that the seatbelt buckle inertially unlatched during the rollover. He inspected the vehicle, seatbelts and other physical evidence. He performed a failure analysis. He listed the three factors required for inertial unlatching to occur and stated that they were present in this accident.

Ford argued that Syson’s theory lacks support in the scientific and legal communities. The judge found that none of the cases on which Ford relied provided precedent for the claim that the theory of inertial unlatch should be rejected in its entirety. In fact, the judge said the theory of inertial release has been accepted by courts in rollover accident cases.

Summary Judgment Denied

“Consequently, on the issue of whether plaintiff may present this theory as a basis for her negligence and strict liability causes of action, based upon the facts set forth herein, this Court, with the support of other federal courts, finds in favor of plaintiff,” the judge said.

In the alternative, Ford argued that Harrison’s claims must be dismissed because Syson’s opinion is unreliable and fails to meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Ford said Syson did not determine the magnitude or duration of any forces by any scientific means and ignored alternate theories and relied on tests conducted on new, unworn buckles.

The judge found that Ford’s arguments went to the weight to be afforded Syson’s testimony, not its admissibility.

“The Court has considered Syson’s investigation, his background and experience and reviewed his report and affidavit and finds that his opinion will assist the jury,” the judge said in denying Ford’s motion to exclude the testimony.

Punitives To Be Revisited

Regarding Harrison’s claim for $ 300 million in punitive damages, the judge said dismissal is not warranted at this time, but Ford may renew its argument once Harrison produces her evidence at trial.

On the issue of Ford’s 18 affirmative defenses, the judge found that there remains a genuine question of material fact regarding whether modifications to the vehicle, Harrison’s driving, speed and/or the condition of the roadway was a proximate cause of her injuries.

Counsel to Harrison is John Scarzafava of Scarzafava & Basdekis in Oneonta, N.Y. Edward C. Stewart and Bryan D. Cross of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell in Denver and McAksill Law Firm in Buffalo, N.Y., represent Ford.

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