gavel.gif (3462 bytes) Failure to instruct jury on 
crashworthiness causes reversal

The Superior Court reversed and remanded for new trial a $3.8 million verdict because the trial court failed to instruct the jury on the crashworthiness doctrine, according to the opinion issued Aug. 20 in Colville v. Crown Equipment Corporation and Omnilift, Inc.. PaTLA member Robert A. Krebs filed a brief on behalf of Colville. A previous story on this case ran in the September 2001 edition of the PaTLA News.

According to the opinion, David Colville injured his left foot while operating a Crown standup forklift in October 1994. Colville lost control of the forklift and slammed into a delivery truck while unloading. His foot was crushed between the wheel of the truck and the base of the forklift.

Colville filed a strict products liability suit against the manufacturer in October 1996. He argued that the forklift was defective because it was designed without a door to enclose the operator�s compartment and did not provide warnings. Crown argued that the door would not be a safer alternative design. A door would prevent the operator from jumping out of the forklift in the event of a rollover.

According to the opinion, Crown requested that the trial court instruct the jury on crashworthiness, as Colville had used the theory during opening statements and during the case. The judge denied the request by saying the forklift was crashworthy. The jury awarded Colville $3 million, and awarded his wife $500,000 on her loss of consortium claim. The total award after delay damages was $3,843,253.29. 

Crown then appealed to the Superior Court, saying that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on crashworthiness, excluding evidence of compliance with government regulations, and determining that federal regulations did not preempt Crown�s state law claims. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court because it determined Crown had waived the jury instructions.

Crown further appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the Superior Court erred in saying that Crown waived their challenge to the jury instructions. In March 2002, the Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court judgment. The court stated that Crown �properly preserved their challenge to jury instructions by making a timely objection during the charge conference.� The court remanded to the Superior Court for �consideration of the merits of [Appellants�] claim that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the crashworthiness doctrine.�

Crown argued that the crashworthiness doctrine applies to the case because the defect did not cause the collision, and that the lack of a door simply increased Colville�s injuries. Crown also argued that, �a jury charge on crashworthiness was necessary, especially where Appellees pursued the case under a crashworthiness theory from the outset of trial.� 

In its opinion, the court stated that the crashworthiness doctrine applies to situations where, �the defect did not cause the accident or initial impact, but rather increased the severity of the injury over that which would have occurred absent the design defect.�
Colville �consistently introduced evidence indicating the absence of a door did not cause the initial impact.� Colville also proved that the defect increased the injury during the accident. 

The court wrote, �As the crashworthiness doctrine was created to extend liability to manufacturers and sellers of defective products in a situation of this kind, we find that a crashworthiness instruction was warranted.�

Colville also argued that there was no �second collision� to warrant a crashworthiness instruction. The court replied to this in saying that Colville�s interpretation of �second collision� was too narrow, and that the term usually refers to the collision of the passenger with the interior of the vehicle. The court wrote, �the term �second collision� must be interpreted to encompass any situation where unnecessary or �seconday� injuries occur as the result of a defective product�s failure to protect the passenger.�

Colville also stated in his brief that Colville did not sustain an �enhanced injury� to warrant a crashworthiness instruction. The court dismissed that argument. Colville then argued that the case was not tried as a crashworthiness case. The court stated that Colville repeatedly referred to the doctrine throughout the trial. The court wrote, �In light of these facts, we find no merit in Appellees� contention that the instant case was not tried as a crashworthiness case.�

Upon determining that the jury should have been instructed on the crashworthiness doctrine, the court needed to determine whether Crown was prejudiced by the decision. The court stated, �As a result of this error, the court failed to give the jury any guidance on how to determine whether the door constituted a safer alternative design or how to utilize all of the expert testimony regarding this issue. Since Appellants primarily based their defense on the assertion that a door would not constitute a safer alternative design, we find that Appellants must have been prejudiced by this omission.�
The court vacated and remanded the case for a new trial. 



Back to PaTLA