A federal judge in Washington state has decided that jury issues exist in a product liability lawsuit brought by a short-statured woman who was seriously injured when the airbags in her Mitsubishi Eclipse deployed in a low-impact collision.
“[G]enuine issues of material fact [exist] as to whether the airbag deployment parameters were reasonably safe as designed at the time that the Eclipse was manufactured,” concluded U.S. District Judge Malouf Peterson of the Eastern District of Washington.
The plaintiff in the case, Judy Morris, was injured when she rear-ended a flatbed truck while driving her 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T 2-door hatchback. The accident occurred in Spokane on Jan. 4, 2006.
The collision itself was rather mild, with the Eclipse sustaining little or no damage. The evidence suggests that the truck was traveling between 8 to 19 mph and Morris’s vehicle was going between 24 to 35 mph at the moment of impact.
Despite the relatively low impact, the airbags in the Eclipse deployed. Morris is 5’4″ and in her sixties. These factors probably had something to do with the catastrophic nature of her injuries. The woman’s spinal cord was severed, resulting in incomplete quadriplegia and paralysis.
According to court records, Mitsubishi concedes that Morris’s injuries were the result of airbag deployment and not from the impact of the collision. A defense expert concluded that Morris’s injuries were most likely the result of the interaction between the airbag membrane and the woman’s head and neck as the airbag rapidly deployed and expanded.
What the parties do dispute is the relative velocity of the two vehicles at the moment of impact and whether Morris was braking at the time.
Morris’s lawsuit against Mitsubishi includes claims for defective manufacturing, defective design and failure to warn under the Washington Product Liability Act.
Last week, Judge Peterson addressed Mitsubishi’s motion for summary judgment and found in favor of Morris on two of her three claims.
With regard to the manufacturing defect claim, the primary point of contention was whether Mitsubishi testing established that the Eclipse airbag should not deploy in an accident that involves a change in velocity equal to or less than 12.5 mph.
Mitsubishi argued that the 12.5 mph figure on which Morris based her claim was itself based on “flawed and corrupted” data.
In this battle of the experts, the court concluded that Morris’s expert sufficiently refuted Mitsubishi’s expert for the purpose of creating “a material question of fact as to whether the airbag in Ms. Morris’s Eclipse ‘was not reasonably safe in construction or not reasonably safe because it did not conform to the manufacturer’s express warranty or to the implied warranties under [state law].'”
Likewise, the court found that Morris could proceed on her design defect claim that the airbags in her Eclipse deployed unnecessarily, too forcefully and too late.
But Mitsubishi won its summary judgment on Morris’s failure to warn claim.
Mitsubishi argued that state-law failure to warn claims like the one in this case conflict with and are thus preempted by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208. The warnings in the Eclipse met this standard by advising drivers and passengers “not to sit or lean unnecessarily close to the airbag.”
Judge Peterson concluded that “FMVSS 208 preempts Ms. Morris’s failure to warn claim to the extent that Ms. Morris asserts that other warnings such as those relating specifically to drivers of short stature should have been placed in the Eclipse.”
With respect to warnings that do not conflict with FMVSS 208, the court concluded that dismissal was warranted because Morris “does not offer a developed theory or evidence, supporting her failure to warn claim, by offering a scenario in which a different warning than those included on the visor or in the owner’s manual would have prevented her injuries….
“Nor does she present other evidence supporting that the absence of any particular information proximately caused her injuries in the collision. Plaintiff has not met her burden of designating specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” (Morris v. Mitsubishi)
– Pat Murphy