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Nance v. Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 22, 2014

Patricia Nance, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc.; Toyota Motor Corp.; Takata Corp., Defendants.

ORDER

FREDERICK J. MARTONE, District Judge.

The court has before it defendants' motion for summary judgment (doc. 74), plaintiffs' response (doc. 76), and defendants' reply (doc. 79).

I.

This is a products liability action arising out of a single vehicle rollover crash that occurred on September 19, 2010 in Coconino County, Arizona. Decedent Kevin Nance was driving a 1999 Toyota 4Runner southbound on Forest Service Highway 505 outside of Flagstaff. He lost control of his vehicle, causing the vehicle to roll multiple times. Although he stayed strapped into his seatbelt, at some point during the crash, decedent's head struck the ground, possibly through the sun roof, causing severe head trauma, resulting in his death. There were no eyewitnesses to the crash.

Plaintiffs, decedent's statutory beneficiaries, filed this action under Arizona's wrongful death statute, asserting claims for strict products liability, negligence, breach of warranty, and punitive damages. On December 30, 2013, we denied plaintiffs' motion to amend the Rule 16 scheduling order to extend the time for plaintiffs to disclose their expert witnesses. (Doc. 40). We held that plaintiffs failed to show either good cause or excusable neglect to excuse the untimely filing. Because plaintiffs did not timely disclose an expert, they may not use an expert in their case-in-chief. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(c)(1).

Defendants filed this motion for summary judgment arguing that all of plaintiffs' claims fail as a matter of law.

II.

Defendants first argue that because plaintiffs have no expert for their case-in-chief, they cannot prove their strict products liability or negligence claims. A manufacturer is strictly liable for injuries caused by the use of any product that was in a "defective condition unreasonably dangerous." Dart v. Wiebe Mfg., Inc. , 147 Ariz. 242, 244, 709 P.2d 876, 878 (1985) (citing Restatement (Second) Torts ยง 402A (1965)). Therefore, to prevail on their claim for strict products liability, plaintiffs "must show the product was in a defective condition that made it unreasonably dangerous, the defective condition existed when the product left the defendant's control, and the defective condition proximately caused the plaintiffs' injuries." State Farm Ins. Co. v. Premier Manufactured Sys. Inc. , 213 Ariz. 419, 426, 142 P.2d 1232, 1239 (Ct. App. 2006).

Similarly, plaintiffs' negligence claim requires proof that the product was in a defective condition and unreasonably dangerous. Mather v. Caterpillar Tractor Corp. , 23 Ariz.App. 409, 411, 533 P.2d 717, 719 (Ct. App. 1975). Plaintiffs must also show that defendants failed to use reasonable care in the design of their product, and the negligence proximately caused plaintiffs' injuries. Id .; Golonka v. General Motors Corp. , 204 Ariz. 575, 581, 65 P.3d 956, 962 (Ct. App. 2003).

Defendants argue that plaintiffs cannot prove their claims for strict products liability and negligence because they have no evidence that the seatbelt was in a defective, unreasonably dangerous condition. They argue that expert testimony is required to show defect and causation, and because plaintiffs have no expert, they cannot prove their claims.

Arizona courts have developed two tests to determine whether a product was in a defective condition and unreasonably dangerous-the "consumer expectation test" and the "risk/benefit analysis" test. Dart , 147 Ariz. at 244-45, 709 P.2d at 878-79. Under the consumer expectation test, a plaintiff must show that the product "failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonable manner." Id. at 245, 709 P.2d at 879. "No expert testimony is necessary to establish a design defect under the consumer expectation test because the test focuses on the safety expectations of an ordinary consumer rather than those of an expert." Long v. TRW Vehicle Safety Sys., Inc. , 796 F.Supp.2d 1005, 1010 (D. Ariz. 2011) (quotation omitted); Martinez v. Terex Corp. , 241 F.R.D. 631, 641 (D. Ariz. 2007); Dietz v. Waller , 141 Ariz. 107, 110, 685 P.2d 744, 747 (1984) (holding that plaintiffs "must be permitted to rely upon circumstantial evidence alone in strict liability cases").

The consumer expectation test has limited application in design defect cases where "the consumer would not know what to expect, because he would have no idea how safe the product could be made." Dart , 147 Ariz. at 244, 709 P.2d at 878. In such cases, "courts additionally or alternatively employ the risk/benefit analysis to determine whether a design is defective and unreasonably dangerous." Golonka , 204 Ariz. at 581, 65 P.3d at 962.

Under a risk/benefit analysis, a plaintiff must prove, in light of relevant factors, whether "the benefits of [a] challenged design... outweigh the risk of danger inherent in [the] design." Id . (alterations in original, citation omitted). If the benefits do not outweigh the risks, the design is defective and unreasonably dangerous. Id.

Defendants contend that the design and performance of a seatbelt system in the context of a rollover crash is highly technical and not within the understanding of an ordinary consumer. Therefore, defendants argue that only the risk/benefit ...


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