U.S. Court of Appeals Finds That Circumstantial Evidence Without an Expert Insufficient in Automobile Design and Manufacturing Defect Case

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago has affirmed a decision by the district court judge regarding circumstantial evidence without an expert witness. In this case, the plaintiffs, Howard Piltch and Barbara Nelson-Piltch, were driving in their 2003 Mercury Mountaineer in 2006 when they were involved in an accident; the airbags of their vehicle did not deploy. After the crash, the couple repaired their car, but did not confirm whether the restraint control module, which monitors a crash and electronically decides whether to deploy airbags, was reset during or after repair work.

One year later, the Piltches were driving the car when it hit a patch of black ice. This caused the car to slide off of the road and hit a wall. On impact, none of the cars’ airbags deployed.

After the second crash, the couple had their Mountaineer repaired at the same repair shop that had repaired the car after the 2006 incident. In 2009, the Piltches sold the car to a mechanic who reprogrammed the vehicle’s black box, wiping out the data that might have been remaining from either of the two crashes.

In February 2010, they filed suit against Ford Motor Co. in the U.S. Federal District Court claiming that the Mountaineer’s airbags were defective and increased the injuries that they suffered as a result of the 2006 accident. Due to the defective jurisdictional statement in their complaint, the court dismissed the case without prejudice. The couple then refiled the lawsuit in December 2011 in state court and Ford removed the case to the federal court because of diversity of citizenship of the two parties. During the discovery process, the Piltches never presented any expert reports.

Ford moved for summary judgment in November 2011 and the district court granted the motion. The Piltches appealed.

The appeals panel addressed the question of whether the car’s repairs amounted to circumstantial evidence, without support from expert testimony, and in fact created a genuine issue of material fact for their claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals found that under either a design or manufacturing claim, a lay jury would be unable to determine whether the airbags in the Mountaineer were defective without expert testimony.

In addition, the appeals panel found that without expert testimony, a lay jury would be unable to distinguish between the injuries suffered due to the collision and any enhanced injuries suffered due to the airbags’ failure to deploy.

In the court’s decision, it addressed the issue of res ipsa loquitur. In discussion, the court cited Whitted v. General Motors Corp. The panel stated that the Piltches had not presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the defendants retained control or dominion over the airbags in the vehicle.

Further, the appeals panel said that given the Piltches did not confirm the airbag mechanism was not reset after the 2006 accident, it remained a reasonable possibility that the airbags failed to deploy due to not being reset. Consequently the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision granting Ford Motor its summary judgment dismissing this case.

Howard Piltch et al. v. Ford Motor Co,, et al., No. 14-1965 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Cir., Feb. 11, 2015).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automotive defect cases, pharmaceutical defect cases and automobile accidents for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Forest Park, Crestwood, Hillside, Hinsdale, Wheaton, Aurora, Romeoville, Lynwood, Calumet Park, Blue Island, Summit, Chicago Heights, Chicago (Rose Hill, Roscoe Village, Pulaski Park, Portage Park, Prairie District, Princeton Park, Old Town Triangle, Near South Side, Lower West Side, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square Garfield Park, Garfield Ridge, Gold Coast, Horner Park, Hyde Park), Lisle, Geneva, Cicero and Rosemont, Ill.

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