Reis v. Volvo Cars of North America

This appeal addresses the proper jury charge for defective design of product suits. The plaintiff, Manuel Reis was pinned against a wall and lost his left leg after his friend’s 1987 Volvo station wagon lurched forward upon starting the engine. The plaintiff initiated this action, claiming that Volvo was responsible for this accident for failing to install a starter interlock in their cars with manual transmissions, or at least, warning users that the car could lurch forward when the engine is started while the car is in first gear. The plaintiff offered expert testimony stating that many automobile manufacturers had begun installing starter interlock mechanisms in their 1987 manual transmission cars. Volvo, on the other hand, justified their decision not to install starter interlocks because it would prevent the car from moving quickly in an emergency and the likelihood of a situation such as plaintiff’s occurring was very low. The jury was charged with PJI 2:15 (Common Law Standard of Care – Defendant Having Special Knowledge) and PJI 2:16 (Common Law Standard of Care – Customary Business Practices) despite Volvo’s objections. The jury found that Volvo was negligent in failing to install a starter interlock, but also found that the 1987 station wagon was reasonably safe without the device installed. The plaintiff was awarded $10,000,000 in damages.

Before judgment was entered however, the Appellate Division decided Volvo’s appeal from the Supreme Court’s decision to deny summary judgment, and dismissed plaintiff’s failure to warn claims. Thus, the trial court set aside that verdict, but entered judgment on the design defect claim. This decision was then appealed by both parties, and the Appellate Division held that the trial court properly set aside the failure to warn claim, and did not err in issuing PJI 2:15 and 2:16.  Two justices dissented, and would have found that jury charge 2:16 was inappropriate such that a new trial was warranted. Volvo appealed this decision under CPLR 5601(a), which provides that an appeal may be made when two Justices dissent in favor of the appellant and that all issues decided against appellant are subject to review.

Here, the Court found that jury charge PJI 2:15 was given in error because it pertains to malpractice claims, not design defect claims. Malpractice claims use a community standard as opposed to the reasonable person standard on which design defect claims must adhere. The Court found that this mistake could have impacted the jury’s decision because the jury returned an inconsistent finding of guilt on two claims that were substantially identical. The Court also examined PJI 2:16, and found that it was properly given because it instructed the jury to consider the totality of the evidence, not to simply find guilt because of a failure to conform to the community standards. The Court held that a determination that PJI 2:15 was issued in error necessitated a new trial and reversal.

993 N.Y.S.2d 672 (N.Y. 2014)

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