Maryland Injury Law Update: Defective Vehicle Suit? Having Expert Witnesses Can Make or Break a Case

For those who think that winning a defective vehicle suit following an injury-related traffic accident or fatal roadway crash involving a car, truck or motorcycle, you may want to reconsider. As much as it is heartening to believe you have an open and shut case of product liability, the fact is these kinds of law suits are typically heard by juries that may or may not understand the technical details involved.

Furthermore, as Baltimore auto accident lawyers and Maryland personal injury attorneys, we know that bringing in a professional or expert witness for the plaintiff’s side is more than a good idea; it’s often necessary if the court is to allow a case to continue. In the interest of justice, having all the necessary tools at one’s disposal can make the difference between winning a case on its merits, or losing due to partial measures.

A recently-decided appellate case (D. Show and M. Federici v. Ford Motor Company) demonstrates what can happen if the plaintiff either chooses not to hire an expert witness or believes his or her case can stand on the general facts alone. In this particular instance, the plaintiffs’ 1993 Ford Explorer was involved in a traffic collision, during which the SUV rolled over, injuring the occupants, David Show and Maria Federici.

According to court records, the plaintiffs’ vehicle was moving through a roadway intersection at about 30mph when it was hit by another car in the vicinity of its left-rear wheel. As a result of the impact, the Explorer rolled over. In such cases, it’s not uncommon for the driver and passengers inside the vehicle to receive injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken bones and closed-head trauma. Under some circumstances, fatalities can result from a car crash such as this.

In bringing their suit against Ford, Show and Federici contended that the Explorer was defective because its design rendered it unstable. However, the basis for this claim was apparently insufficient and the suit was removed under the diversity jurisdiction and the parties consented to a final decision by a magistrate judge.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, they failed to designate an expert to testify regarding the vehicle’s design as it applied to stability and operational control of the vehicle. Because of this, the magistrate judge ruled that the lawsuit could not go forward without the necessary expert testimony, granting summary judgment to Ford Motor Company.

In the Illinois court system where this case was tried, product liability suits involving design defects, permits a claim to be established in one of two separate ways:

1) The plaintiffs can bring forth evidence that shows a product (such as the Ford Explorer) failed to safely perform in a manner that an ordinary consumer would expect that product to function when used in the manner intended, or any other “reasonable manner.” This is commonly known as the “Consumer Expectation Test;” or,

2) Evidence can be introduced that shows a product’s design proximately resulted in the plaintiff’s injury(s). With this type of approach, the plaintiff will typically prevail if the defendant in the suit cannot show that, on balance, the benefits of the product or its design outweighs any risk of danger inherent in said product or design. This is commonly referred to as either “Risk-Utility” or “Risk-Benefit” test.

In the case of this automobile-related product liability suit, the plaintiffs apparently did not pursue the risk-utility approach as they never brought forward an expert witness, such as an automotive engineer, to provide testimony on the vehicle’s design. The district court subsequently rejected the plaintiff’s approach that would have left the jury to decide based on the consumer expectation test.

However, since the Supreme Court of Illinois had not previously considered any design-defect suit pertaining to car, truck, or motorcycle accidents caused allegedly by defective design without the plaintiff’s providing expert witness testimony, it had never been definitively held that an expert’s testimony is totally required. Yet, the state’s appellate decisions state that expert testimony is indeed vital whenever design-defect lawsuits call into question certain aspects of product design or operation that lies outside the normal understanding of a layperson.

As a result, the appellate court affirmed the earlier decision handed down by the magistrate judge, stating in effect that consumer expectations are only one facet of an argument into whether or not a product is unreasonably dangerous. The main concern of the court in this case appears to be the fact that a jury, lacking the insight provided by an expert witness, would by necessity need to rely on speculation.

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