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Fourth Circuit Upholds Jury Verdict in Favor of Booster Seat Manufacturer Where District Court Allowed Evidence of Manufacturer’s Compliance with 49 C.F.R. § 571.213

S. M. v. Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc.
United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, No. 12-1500 (4th Cir., Mar. 25, 2013)

by Jhanelle Graham, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In S. M. v. Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a jury verdict in a products liability action involving an allegedly defective child safety seat—Dorel’s High Back Booster seat (the “booster seat”)—manufactured by Defendant, Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc. (“Dorel”). Plaintiff, Amy L. Musick, as mother and next friend of her infant daughter, S.L.M., sued Dorel in the Western District of Virginia for grievous head injuries S.L.M. sustained when a young, inattentive driver struck the Musicks’ minivan in the rear. Writing per curiam, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s jury verdict in favor of Dorel.

The procedural history of the case is as follows: during trial, and at the close of the evidence and the parties’ arguments, the district court instructed the jurors on Virginia law then produced a special verdict form, directing the jury to consider sequentially: (1) whether the booster seat, in which S.L.M was secured at the time of the accident, was defective; (2) if so, whether the defect proximately caused the girl’s injuries; and (3) in the event that defect and causation had been adequately proved, the proper amount and attribution of damages. The jury returned its verdict in favor of Dorel, finding that the booster seat was not defective. Musick subsequently moved for a new trial, alleging that certain evidence was improperly admitted, that the jury was led awry by the district court’s instructions, and that the defense’s misconduct unfairly tainted the proceedings. The district court denied Musick’s motion and entered judgment for Dorel.

On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, Musick contended that the jury was unduly influenced by the district court’s decision to allow Dorel to admit into evidence that it designed and constructed the booster seat in compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (“FMVSS 213”), 49 C.F.R. § 571.213, which establishes child safety seat standards based on testing conducted for frontal impacts, but not on testing for rear-impact collisions like the one that injured S.L.M. After review, the Fourth Circuit rejected Musick’s challenges to the jury’s verdict and affirmed the district court’s decision.

First, the appellate court began its analysis by explaining that the district court was imbued with “broad discretion in ruling on questions of relevancy and in balancing the probative value of relevant evidence against any undue prejudice.” United States v. Zandi, 769 F.2d 229, 237 (4th Cir. 1985). Thus, the Fourth Circuit was reviewing the district court’s evidentiary rulings merely to ensure that it did not abuse its considerable discretion.

Second, the Fourth Circuit stated that “a product’s compliance with an applicable product safety statute or administrative regulation is properly considered in determining whether the product is defective with respect to the risks sought to be reduced by the statute or regulation.” RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF TORTS: PROD. LIAB. § 4(b) (1998). Based on this provision, the appellate court declined to accept Musick’s proposition that the “risks sought to be reduced” by FMVSS 213 necessarily excluded the specific risk of injury through a rear-end collision. Rather, the Fourth Circuit stated that the regulation provided, plainly and simply, that its purpose was “to reduce the number of children killed or injured in motor vehicles,” without regard to how those children may come to be endangered. 49 C.F.R. § 571.213 S2 (2012). Consequently, the court declined to attribute to FMVSS 213 the abbreviated reach that Musick urged.

Third, although Musick’s claim proceeded on a theory of strict liability and not negligence, Musick placed at issue the care with which Dorel designed the booster seat. In Turner v. Manning, Maxwell & Moore, Inc., 217 S.E.2d 863 (Va. 1975), the Virginia Supreme Court instructed that a “manufacturer is under a duty to exercise ordinary care to design a product that is reasonably safe for the purpose for which it is intended.” Id. at 868. Based upon Turner, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the jury was instructed in absolute conformity with the law, because evidence of Dorel’s compliance with FMVSS 213 was relevant and necessary to demonstrate the company’s care in bringing the booster seat to market.

Fourth, the appellate court acknowledged that the evidence of conformity with FMVSS 213 was helpful to Dorel, and thus, by corollary, prejudicial to the plaintiff’s case; yet, that prejudice did not rise to the level of unfairness contemplated by Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. It would have been unfair to Dorel for the district court to have excluded the challenged evidence on relevancy grounds, particularly given the nature of Musick’s proof of defect, which consisted of expert and anecdotal testimony intended to show that the booster seat was defective because Dorel could have designed it with larger side wings and energy absorbing padding, at a minimum of additional cost. According to the appellate court, there was no evidence to the effect that the hypothetical design changes would have made the seat safer only in the event of a rear-impact collision; rather, the testimony established that the proffered changes would have made the seat safer generally. Because Musick’s evidence attacked only the general design of the booster seat, the court held that it would have been inequitable to have excluded Dorel’s competing evidence.

Based on the above considerations, the Fourth Circuit was unwilling to conclude that the district court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of Dorel’s compliance with FMVSS 213. Additionally, the court examined the jury instructions relating to that regulation and found no abuse of discretion, because each instruction accurately stated Virginia law and was warranted by the trial evidence. For these reasons, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment on the grounds set forth by the district court in “its thorough and well-reasoned memorandum Opinion and Order denying Musick’s motion for a new trial.” See Musick v. Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc., 847 F. Supp. 2d 887 (W.D. Va. 2012).


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