California Court of Appeals Issues Ruling in Multi-Car Collision Lawsuit

The California Court of Appeals recently reached a decision in Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 224 Cal. App. 4th 990 (2014), regarding a violent multi-car accident that resulted in leaving the individual who brought the lawsuit quadriplegic.

The lawsuit arose out of a several-car collision, which was caused by one car, a Mustang, exiting the freeway at a speed of 70-86 miles per hour and crashing into one car, forcing it into the one in front of it, and so forth. The Mustang crashed into an Altima, which then crashed into a Frontier (the plaintiff’s car), which then crashed into a Mercedes, which then crashed into a Volvo, until all of the cars came to rest in the intersection.

At the scene, first responders found the plaintiff in a supine (lying down) position within her car. She told them that she could not feel anything below her waist, and a paramedic ultimately concluded she had a spine injury. At the hospital, the plaintiff was diagnosed with two broken and two dislocated vertebrae in her neck. She underwent surgery, after which she still could not move. Doctors told the plaintiff that she would never be able to walk again. Over time, with physical therapy, the plaintiff has regained some very limited use of her hands.

Based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff’s expert witnesses, including a reconstruction expert, a structural engineering expert, and an expert on biomechanics, what happened in the accident was that the force of the rear-end collision caused a part of the gears within the plaintiff’s vehicle’s seat to break, thus forcing the back of her seat down. Then, due to the physics of the accident, as her body became horizontal, the seat belt lost all effectiveness due to the angle, and she began to “ramp” or move up the seat, until her head was stopped by something. According to one of the plaintiff’s many expert witnesses, due to what happened on the impact, the accident was within the 1 to 5 percent most severe rear-end accidents possible.

When one of the plaintiff’s expert witnesses conducted a crash test, simulating similar circumstances, except using a lighter weight dummy (in order to be conservative), the same set of gears within the seat broke, and the dummy was propelled upwards and backwards, just as the plaintiff was in the accident.

The plaintiff initially sued several defendants, which were all involved in the design, manufacture, and sale of the seat or vehicle involved in the accident. She settled with some of them and then proceeded to trial against those defendants with which she hadn’t settled. The defendants’ engineers testified that the seat performed as would have been expected in this type of accident, so the type of claim that the plaintiff alleged was that the seat was defectively designed, which is one kind of strict liability lawsuit under California law.

In their appeal, the defendants claimed that the trial court erred in instructing the jury to use a consumer expectations standard in determining whether the design was defective. The consumer expectations test has to do with how a typical consumer would expect a product to perform. Consumer expectations are improper in determining defective design when the factors in play are too complicated and thus beyond a typical individual’s experience. However, courts have found that this standard was proper in other rear-end collision accidents involving similar circumstances (when a seat collapsed, leading to serious injury).

The court rejected the defendants’ arguments regarding the seat as a component, and it found that it was designed for the particular vehicle in question, so that defense was unavailable.

Regarding the defendant that participated by providing engineering services in designing the seat, the court reiterated the concept that “engineers who do not participate in bringing a product to market and simply design a product are not subject to strict products liability.” Engineering services alone do not invoke the strict liability doctrine involved in consumer products lawsuits.

The court also touched upon other issues and eventually remanded for a determination of apportionment of fault.

While this particular opinion dealt with the plaintiff’s lawsuit against the various parties involved in designing the car in which she was riding, there was undoubtedly a lawsuit against the individual who caused the accident in the first place. That individual was responsible for the full extent of the plaintiff’s injuries, eventhough they may have been minimized significantly if the gears in her seat did not fail as they did during the course of the accident.

If you have been injured in a car accident, it is important to understand your rights so that you are not taken advantage of. The lawyers at Sharifi Firm, APC have significant experience in handling car accident cases throughout California.  Contact us today for a free consultation with a leading California car accident attorney. We can be reached through this website, or by calling (323) 848-9904.

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