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Pavoni v. Chrysler Grp., LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

June 17, 2015

KAREN ANN PAVONI; PAMELA JOYCE MOYET; FRED ARTHUR SCHEID, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
CHRYSLER GROUP, LLC, Defendant-Appellee

Submitted, Pasadena, California May 7, 2015 [*]

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 2:11-cv-10513-RGK-SP. R. Gary Klausner, District Judge, Presiding.

SUMMARY  [**]

Strict Products Liability

The panel reversed the district court's summary judgment in favor of Chrysler Group, LLC and vacated the district court's award of costs in the plaintiffs' diversity action against Chrysler alleging strict products liability and other theories concerning liability for deaths that occurred in a 2008 Chrysler Grand Caravan automobile.

The panel held that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether a " false park" defect in the Grand Caravan caused the deaths of the plaintiffs' mother and her husband. The panel also held that the district court incorrectly applied the relevant California substantive law.

Robert J. Nelson, Fabrice N. Vincent, Todd A. Walburg, Jordan Elias, and Cecilia Han, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, San Francisco, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Philip R. Cosgrove, Hall R. Marston, and Ryan E. Cosgrove, Sedgwick LLP, Los Angeles, California, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before: Harry Pregerson, Richard C. Tallman, and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Pregerson.

OPINION BY: Harry Pregerson

OPINION

Page 1096

PREGERSON, Circuit Judge:

Karen Pavoni, Pamela Moyet, and Fred Scheid (" Plaintiffs" ), three of the surviving children of Rose Coats, appeal a summary judgment order in favor of Chrysler Group, LLC (" Chrysler" ), the corporate successor to the manufacturer of the 2008 Chrysler Grand Caravan automobile (" Grand Caravan" ) involved in the deaths of Rose and her husband, Roy Coats. Plaintiffs contend that Chrysler is liable for the Coats' deaths under the theories of strict products liability, negligent design and failure to warn, negligence, and wrongful death. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand to the district court for trial. We also vacate the award of costs in light of our reversal of summary judgment.[1]

I.

According to the district court's order granting summary judgment in favor of Chrysler, the facts in this case are as follows: On Sunday, February 27, 2011,

Page 1097

police found Rose, age 75, and Roy, age 83, dead in the garage of their Menifee, California home. Rose " was found pinned between the Car's open driver-side door and the inside of the garage door frame, where she suffocated to death." Roy " was found lying on the garage floor directly beneath, and in front of her, with his left ankle under the Car's front driver-side tire. The Car ran over him and fractured his right ankle." The coroner reported that Roy " died of hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, a natural cause of death." No one witnessed the accident.

Plaintiffs allege that a " false park" defect in the automatic transmission of the Grand Caravan allowed Rose to exit the vehicle, believing the car to be in park. The " false park" defect caused the Grand Caravan to self-shift into reverse, and begin moving backwards. While reversing, the Grand Caravan pinned Rose between the driver's door and the inside frame of the garage door and struck Roy, causing him to have a heart attack and fall to the ground.

On November 9, 2012, before the close of discovery and before the expert disclosure deadline, Chrysler moved for summary judgment. In their timely opposition to the motion for summary judgment, Plaintiffs submitted a declaration from their design defect expert, Gerald Rosenbluth, an automobile defect investigator with 35 years of experience, who concluded that there was a " false park" design defect in the Grand Caravan and that defect more likely than not caused the Coats' deaths.

In his signed and sworn declaration, Plaintiffs' expert Rosenbluth explained the history of the alleged " false park" defect in Chrysler vehicles,[2] the engineering mechanics of the alleged " false park" defect, and how the alleged " false park" defect can be avoided. Rosenbluth also tested the Coats' Grand Caravan and found the " false park" defect, allowing him to " place the gear shift selector in a position between 'park' and 'reverse' wherein the subject vehicle remained motionless as if it were in 'park' for a period of time before the transmission re-engaged hydraulic reverse." Rosenbluth concluded that more likely than not, to a reasonable degree of scientific and technological certainty, a " false park" defect caused the accident that resulted in Roy and Rose Coats' deaths.

On December 5, 2012, the district court canceled a scheduled December 10, 2012 hearing on Defendant's motion for summary judgment and took the summary judgment motion under submission. On January 10, 2013, the district court granted Chrysler's motion for summary judgment, finding that " the facts presented" by Plaintiffs and their expert " are insufficient to establish the requisite causal connection between Defendant's actions and Decedents' deaths."

Page 1098

II.

We review a grant of summary judgment de novo. Clicks Billiards, Inc. v. Sixshooters, Inc., 251 F.3d 1252, 1257 (9th Cir. 2001). Viewing the evidence " as a whole" and " in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion," the court " must determine whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court correctly applied the relevant substantive law." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986) (citation omitted); Oliver v. Keller, 289 F.3d 623, 626 (9th Cir. 2002). An issue of material fact is genuine " if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

III.

Reviewing the record in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, we find that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether a " false park" defect in the Coats' Grand Caravan caused the deaths of Roy and Rose Coats. We also find that the district court incorrectly applied the relevant substantive law.

Under California law, " [a] manufacturer may be held strictly liable for placing a defective product on the market if the plaintiff's injury results from a reasonably foreseeable use of the product." Pannu v. Land Rover N. Am., Inc., 191 Cal.App.4th 1298, 1310, 120 Cal.Rptr.3d 605 (2011); see also Greenman v. Yuba Power Prods., Inc., 59 Cal.2d 57, 62, 27 Cal.Rptr. 697, 377 P.2d 897 (1963). The alleged existence of the " false park" defect, documented in Chrysler vehicles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and identified in the Grand Caravan through Plaintiffs' expert Rosenbluth's testing, along with the details of Roy and Rose Coats' deaths, present genuine issues of material fact that would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the " false park" defect was the legal cause of the accident and their deaths.[3] See, e.g., Hinckley v. La Mesa R.V. Ctr., Inc., 158 Cal.App.3d 630, 205 Cal.Rptr. 22, 29 (Ct. App. 1984) ( " [P]roof of the malfunction of a part for which the manufacturer alone could be responsible, may

Page 1099

make out a sufficient case, and so may expert testimony." ) (citing William L. Prosser, Law of Torts: Products Liability, Proof § 103 (4th ed. 1971)).

We reverse the summary judgment order of the district court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We also vacate the award of costs for reconsideration in light of our reversal of summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 54(d)(1).

REVERSED and REMANDED in part; and VACATED in part.


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