Faced with a $10.4 wrongful death verdict, child car seat manufacturer Evenflo had two shots at a new trial.
First, Evenflo felt that it should have been allowed to tell the jury that its car seat met federal safety standards.
Second, Evenflo argued that the parents of an infant killed in a rollover crash should not have been allowed to admit evidence of recalls and test failures of a car seat that was similar to but not the same as the Evenflo model at the center of the case.
As is often the case on appeal, last week Evenflo learned that it would have to be satisfied with a partial victory.
Ejected child seat
Jessica Malcolm did all that you would expect of a new mom. A friend gave the Livingston, Montana, rancher an “On My Way” Model 207 child safety seat when she was pregnant.
Jessica called Evenflo to make sure that the Model 207 was safe to use and company representatives assured her that it was.
Jessica gave birth to Tyler and all was right with the world until the evening of July16, 2000, when she secured the four-month-old boy in his Evenflo car seat and drove off on a pizza run.
On the way home, Jessica’s 1996 Chevy Suburban was forced off the road by an oncoming driver who swerved into her lane.
The Suburban rolled over three times and ended up in a ditch.
During the rollover, a plastic seatbelt hook on the Evenflo car seat broke off and the seat was ejected from the Suburban.
Tyler, who remained strapped to the seat, suffered fatal brain injuries. Jessica escaped the accident without any serious physical harm.
Jessica and her husband, Chad, filed a strict liability suit against Evenflo, alleging that the Model 207 car seat was defectively designed because its seatbelts hooks were prone to fracturing and breaking away.
Evenflo denied any defect, submitting that Tyler’s car seat was bound to break loose due to the tremendous force of the crash.
As part of its strategy to avoid liability, Evenflo wanted to tell the jury that the Model 207 car seat complied with federal safety standards.
But the trial judge refused to allow this evidence, concluding it was unfairly prejudicial.
On the other hand, the trial judge allowed the Malcolms to introduce expert testimony that the Evenflo Model 206 — a seat with a seatbelt design similar to the Model 207 that secured Tyler — had suffered a high percentage of failures in vehicle impact tests.
Moreover, the Malcolms were allowed to recount how the Model 206 had been subject to a recall, which spurred Evenflo to complain that the Malcolms were allowed to “put on trial a different child seat” than the Model 207 in which Tyler had died.
In the wake of these body blows, Evenflo was hit with a jury award of $6.7 million in compensatory damages and $3.7 million in punitives.
Federal safety standards
Recognizing that the Malcolms’ case could have a profound impact on future product liability cases in the state, a couple of legal heavyweights joined the ensuing tussle before the Montana Supreme Court.
The Montana Trial Lawyers Association lined up in support of the Malcolms, and Evenflo found itself backed by the Montana Defense Trial Lawyers Association.
Evenflo argued that it should have been allowed to inform the jury that its Model 207 car seat complied with the minimum requirements for child restraint systems under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (FMVSS 213).
On the broader issue, Evenflo wanted the state high court to adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability §4 (1998), which provides that compliance with a government safety regulation is admissible in connection a defective design claim.
But the court gave this argument a thumbs down with respect to the issue of liability.
“Section 4 conflicts with the core principles of Montana’s strict products liability law,” the court explained. “To recognize Section 4 improperly would inject into strict products liability analysis the manufacturer’s reasonableness and level of care—concepts that are fundamental to negligence law, but irrelevant on the issue of design defect liability.”
And the court wasn’t about to second-guess the trial judge on this issue:
“The District Court emphasized in its post-trial order that the FMVSS 213 ‘addresses only minimum levels of performance in 27-30 mph frontal impacts.’ The court further noted that ‘FMVSS 213 does not set forth any requirements, or create any reasonable expectations in the mind of the manufacturer, concerning the dynamic performance of a child seat in a motor vehicle rollover.’ The court stated that evidence at trial had established that ‘the dynamic forces unleashed in a high-speed rollover collision are very different from those present in a minimal 27 to 30 mph frontal crash.’
“The District Court added that ‘the risk of mischief and jury confusion’ inherent in allowing Evenflo to defend based on the ‘self-serving’ argument that the OMW model 207 had ‘passed’ FMVSS 213 was ‘particularly apparent when the limited purpose of the federal motor vehicle standards is viewed in the light of Montana products liability law.’”
But pay attention, defense attorneys, because the state supreme court went on to decide that evidence of Evenflo’s compliance with federal safety regulations was admissible on the issue of punitive damages.
“Evidence of Evenflo’s good faith effort to comply with all government regulations, including FMVSS 213, ‘would be evidence of conduct inconsistent with the mental state requisite for punitive damages,’” the court said.
So on this issue, Evenflo notched a victory, nixing the $3.7 million punitive award and getting a new trial on that aspect of the verdict.
Recalls and test failures
Evenflo hit a brick wall when it challenged the trial judge’s decision to allow the Malcolms to introduce evidence regarding the testing and the recall of the Model 206 car seat.
The Montana Supreme Court concluded that the “substantial similarity between the two models dictates that evidence regarding the model 206 would be relevant to whether Evenflo had sold the model 207 to the Malcolms in a ‘defective condition unreasonably dangerous to a user.’ Evidence of cracks, shearing of belt hooks, and FMVSS 213 test failures of the model 206 ‘would be relevant to both the “defect” and the “danger.”’ The District Court acted within its discretion when it decided that evidence regarding the model 206 constituted relevant evidence in determining Evenflo’s liability for compensatory damages.”
And Evenflo will have to contend with this evidence again because the state high court said that the recall and test failure evidence will be available to the Malcolms on their retrial for punitive damages.
“Evenflo’s conduct surrounding the testing and recall of the model 206 constituted relevant evidence regarding Evenflo’s state of mind with respect to its sale of the model 207,” the court explained. “Evenflo’s state of mind represented a key element in determining whether Evenflo had acted with actual fraud or actual malice,” (Malcolm v. Evenflo)
— Pat Murphy
Check out the Circuit Blitz on Twitter!
The Blitz is a daily review of the noteworthy decisions issued by the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals.
To follow the Blitz, go to: