Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Moore v. Ford Motor Co.[1]

Opinion handed down January 25, 2011
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

In Moore, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed and remanded the trial court’s directed verdict against the owners of an automobile on their claims that the manufacturer failed to adequately warn them of the risks associated with the front seats of the vehicle in the event of a rear-end collision. The court affirmed judgments of the trial court regarding the submission of expert testimony and the inadmissibility of some testimony of the automobile owner.

I. Facts and Holding

Jeanne and Monty Moore bought a 2002 Ford Explorer in April of 2005, and a few months later Ms. Moore was involved in a debilitating wreck.[2] She was hit from behind by another vehicle when she stopped the Explorer to make a turn.[3] The impact of the collision caused the driver’s seat to collapse backwards and Moore’s head and shoulders to hit the back seat.[4] As a result, she fractured her T9 vertebra and became a paraplegic.[5]

The Moores sued Ford, claiming “negligent failure to warn, strict liability failure to warn, negligent design and strict liability design defect.”[6] At 6 foot tall and approximately 300 pounds, Ms. Moore testified that she paid attention to the weight warnings of products she purchased because of her size and that she “routinely read warnings, instructions, and manuals” for information of interest to her.[7] She looked through the manual for the Ford Explorer before her accident and saw “no listing for maximum weight limits” or warnings that seats might collapse backwards in a rear-end impact crash.[8] Ms. Moore testified that she “would not have purchased the Explorer had she known the seats were not designed for [a person] of her size.”[9] Mr. Moore also testified that his wife routinely read product warnings and that he would not have purchased the Explorer had there been any warnings that the seats were not designed for a person the size of his wife.[10]

The trial court granted Ford a directed verdict on the Moores’ failure to warn claims.[11] The court held that, under Missouri law, a failure to warn claim could not be based on a theory “that the consumer would not have purchased the product had a more adequate warning been given.”[12] The Moores dismissed their negligent design claim and the jury found in favor of Ford on the remaining strict liability design claim.[13] The Moores appealed.[14]

II. Legal Background

A. Strict Liability Failure to Warn

In order to establish a cause of action for strict liability failure to warn, a plaintiff must prove that: “(1) the defendant sold the product in question in the course of its business; (2) the product was unreasonably dangerous at the time of sale when used as reasonably anticipated without knowledge of its characteristics; (3) the defendant did not give adequate warning of the danger; (4) the product was used in a reasonably anticipated manner; and (5) the plaintiff was damaged as a direct result of the product being sold without an adequate warning.”[15] Evidence in the record reflected that the Moores established the first, third, and fourth elements.[16] The court focused on whether the Moores presented sufficient evidence for elements two and five in order to survive a directed verdict by the court.[17]

A product does not have to be defective in order for it to be unreasonably dangerous to the consumer.[18] Thus, the fact that the jury did not find the design of the seat in the Moores’ Explorer to be defective did not preclude a claim against Ford that there was a failure to warn of danger to a passenger like Ms. Moore.[19] The court determined that the jury should have decided whether the seat was unreasonably dangerous without a warning of its greater potential to collapse in a rear-end collision while carrying a passenger of Ms. Moore’s size and weight.[20]

Ford also argued that the Moores did not prove that they were damaged directly because of the lack of adequate warning regarding the Explorer seat specifications.[21] While there was no question that Ms. Moore’s injuries were caused during the accident and that the seat collapsed backward, the key issue was whether Moore could prove that a warning would have altered her choice to purchase and use the Ford Explorer.[22]

Under Missouri law, there is a rebuttable presumption that a product safety warning will be heeded if made available to the consumer.[23] The Moores produced evidence that they looked for warnings and read manuals regularly and that a warning by Ford would have caused them to make a different purchasing choice.[24] Based on this evidence, the trial court should have allowed a jury to decide whether the lack of adequate warning was a proximate cause of Ms. Moore’s injury.[25]

B. Negligent Failure to Warn

In order to establish negligent failure to warn, a plaintiff must show that: “(1) the defendant designed the product at issue; (2) the product did not contain an adequate warning of the alleged defect or hazard; (3) the defendant failed to use ordinary care to warn of the risk of harm from the alleged defect or hazard; and (4) as a direct result of the defendant’s failure to adequately warn, the plaintiff sustained damage.” [26]

Again, the first and second elements were established by evidence in the record, and there was sufficient evidence to submit questions about the fourth element to the jury.[27] Thus, the key issue for the court centered on whether Ford exercised ordinary care to warn of the risk of harm.[28] The court concluded that, because it was foreseeable that persons over 220 pounds would use the Explorer and that the seats would collapse backward in a rear-end collision, Ford may have failed to use ordinary care by not including a warning regarding the likelihood of seat collapse for a passenger weighing over 200 pounds.[29] Such a question should have been submitted to the jury, so the directed verdict in favor of Ford was in error.[30]

C. Judge Price’s Dissenting Opinion

In his dissent, Judge Price reasoned that in order to establish damages as a result of failure to warn, the plaintiff must be able to show what constitutes an “adequate warning” in order to claim that such a warning would have been heeded.[31] Lacking such proof, the Moores did not establish a submissible case for either of their failure to warn claims, and the trial court’s determination of a directed verdict in Ford’s favor was correct.[32]

III. Comment

Moore is important because it clarifies the principle that a product can be dangerous, even if it is not defective, if adequate warnings regarding its proper use are not made available to the consumer.[33] In cases where there are known safety risks for some of the consumers likely to buy the product, a claim of failure to warn may be actionable if a plaintiff can submit evidence that he or she would have acted otherwise had warnings been offered.

More importantly, Moore encourages automobile manufacturers to test their products for individuals weighing more than 225 pounds and to include adequate warnings and guidelines for larger consumers who may be affected by possible failures. Moore puts automobile manufacturers on notice that larger individuals are buying and using their products. If manufacturers choose not to heed this notice as justification to test their products for use by these individuals, they may be subject to liability for damages in Missouri under the theory of failure to warn.

-Ronald K. Rowe II

[1] No. SC90681 (Mo. January 25, 2011) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=43943. The West reporter citation is Moore v. Ford Motor Co., 332 S.W.3d 749 (Mo. 2011) (en banc).
[2] Id. at *1.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at *1-*2.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id. at *3 (quoting Tune v. Synergy Gas Corp., 883 S.W.2d 10, 13 (Mo. 1993)).
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at *4.
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at *5.
[21] Id. at *7.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id. at *8.
[25] Id.
[26] Id. at *9 (citing Mo. Approved Jury Instr. (Civil) 25.09 (6th ed.)).
[27] Id.
[28] Id. at *10.
[29] Id.
[30] Id.
[31] Id. at *14-15.
[32] Id. at *16.
[33] Id. at *4.