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Virginia Supreme Court Overturns $20 Million Jury Verdict; Holds Mazda Has No Duty to Implement Rollover Protection Features on Soft Top Convertibles

Holiday Motor Corporation, et al. v. Shannon B. Walters
Case No. 15031 (Supreme Court of Virginia, September 8, 2016)

by Caroline E. Willsey, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1150391.pdf.

In Holiday Motor Corporation, et al. v. Shannon B. Walters, the Supreme Court of Virginia considered an appeal from a judgment entered on a $20 million jury verdict in favor of Shannon B. Walters (“Walters”). Walters sustained a serious spinal injury when her 1995 Mazda Miata convertible overturned while she was operating it with the soft top closed. Walters argued that she was injured after the windshield header disconnected from the soft top and collapsed into the occupant compartment. Walters brought claims against Holiday Motor Corporation, Mazda Motor Corporation, and Mazda Motor of America, Inc., (collectively, “Mazda”).

Walters alleged that Mazda was negligent because it designed, manufactured, and placed into the stream of commerce the Mazda Miata convertible, which was unreasonably dangerous for its ordinary and foreseeable use due to defects in the design of the roof latching system, and in failing to warn of such danger. Walters also alleged that Mazda breached its warranties “that the subject vehicle was reasonably fit and safe for its ordinary and/or foreseeable purposes” and “was of merchantable quality throughout.”

On appeal, Mazda argued that it had no duty to design or supply a soft top that provided occupant protection in a roll over crash. Mazda also challenged the opinion offered by Walters’ expert on the grounds that it lacked sufficient foundation.

At trial, Walters’ expert had testified that a properly designed roof latch must be able to remain connected along three load paths – the frame of the vehicle, the side of the vehicle, and the windshield area of the vehicle. Because the roof latches were not broken, Walters’ expert concluded that the roof latch connection had failed, allowing the windshield to collapse into the occupant compartment during the crash. During cross-examination of Walters’ expert, it was revealed that he had not performed a vibration analysis, or any other simulation or test to determine whether the roof latches had detached from the roof prior to the impact of the crash. Walters’ expert was also unable to testify as to how much weight the Mazda latching system could support once the latches were connected – in order to rule out the possibility that the latches would have broken upon impact anyway.

Mazda argued that it owed no duty to design soft top latches to provide occupant rollover protection because it was not the intended or foreseeable purpose of a convertible soft top to provide such protection. Moreover, Mazda argued, Walters’ claim was not that a defect in the Miata caused the rollover crash, but rather, that Mazda should have designed a soft top latching system to provide occupant protection during rollover crashes.

In Virginia, there is no duty on the part of vehicle manufacturers to design or supply a crashworthy vehicle. Further, a vehicle manufacturer only has a duty to exercise reasonable care to design a product that is reasonably safe for the purpose for which it is intended. Therefore, if a duty to design convertible soft tops to provide occupant rollover protection exists, it must be found within a vehicle manufacturer’s duty to exercise reasonable care to design a product that is reasonably safe for the purpose for which it is intended. 

To determine whether a vehicle manufacturer owes a duty to design a convertible soft top to provide occupant rollover protection, cannot, the Court reasoned, turn on whether it is foreseeable that a convertible may be involved in a rollover accident. Such a possibility is undoubtedly foreseeable. Foreseeable misuse of a product does not, however, give rise to a duty to safeguard against the danger of that misuse. To do so, the Court reasoned, would be to disregard common sense. Soft top convertibles are designed to have easily retractable tops for open-air driving. The absence of a permanent roof structure necessarily diminishes the level of protection for the vehicle’s occupants in the event of a rollover. The Court noted that not only is this characteristic of a convertible readily discernible to any user, it is a unique feature that often makes the car more attractive to prospective buyers. Car manufacturers cannot then be expected to provide convertible drivers with the exact kind of rollover protection provided in the standard American passenger car.

The Court also noted that when the Mazda Miata in question was manufactured, in 1995, there were no government or automotive industry safety standards in existence requiring that convertible soft tops provide protection to vehicle occupants against the kind of damage sustained by Walters. Even as recently as 2009, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration regulations that establishing a roof crush requirement on vehicles without permanent roof structures would not be “practical” as “[t]hese roof systems are not intended as significant structural elements but are designed primarily to provide protection from inclement weather, improve theft protection and are generally offered as a luxury item.”

In the absence of any applicable safety standards by the government or the automotive industry, and in light of the readily discernible safety characteristics of soft top convertibles, the Court declined to hold that Mazda had a duty to design the soft top, including its latches, so that it would provide occupant rollover protection. 

The Supreme Court of Virginia also held that Walters’ expert’s testimony was inadmissible. The expert’s opinion was founded on assumptions without evidentiary support. Specifically, Walters’ expert assumed that the roof latches would not have disconnected if they had been designed differently. The expert was unable to provide any evidentiary support regarding how the latches disconnected or how they may have remained connected, had they been designed differently. Because Walters’ expert’s opinion lacked an adequate foundation, the Supreme Court of Virginia concluded that the trial court erred in admitting the opinion.


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