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Holiday Motor Corp. v. Walters

Supreme Court of Virginia

September 8, 2016

HOLIDAY MOTOR CORPORATION, ET AL.
v.
SHANNON B. WALTERS

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF ROANOKE William D. Broadhurst, Judge

          OPINION

          ELIZABETH A. McCLANAHAN JUSTICE.

         Holiday Motor Corporation, Mazda Motor Corporation, and Mazda Motor of America, Inc., (collectively "Mazda") appeal from a judgment entered on a $20 million jury verdict in favor of Shannon B. Walters, who sustained a serious cervical spine injury when her 1995 Mazda Miata convertible overturned while she was operating it with the soft top closed. Walters contends she was injured after the windshield header disconnected from the top and collapsed into the occupant compartment. She asserts that the design of the soft top's latching system was defective because the latches connecting the windshield header to the top were not designed to stay latched in a foreseeable rollover crash.

         Mazda argues it had no duty to design or supply a soft top that provided occupant protection in a rollover crash and that, in any event, the opinion offered by Walters' expert that the soft top's latching system was defectively designed lacked a sufficient foundation. We agree and will reverse the judgment of the circuit court and enter final judgment for Mazda.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts Surrounding 2006 Rollover Crash

         In June 2006, Walters was driving her 1995 Mazda Miata convertible along Virginia State Route 619, a two-lane highway in Bedford County. The Miata was equipped with a soft top that could be folded and stowed for open-air driving or unfolded and closed by connecting the top to the windshield header (the curved steel bar running across the top of the windshield) by latches located on each side of the vehicle.[1] Walters was operating the Miata in the closed-top configuration with the latches engaged. Walters observed a large object that "basically covered [her] whole lane of travel" come toward her from the back of a pickup truck she was following. Seeing no traffic in the oncoming lane, Walters veered left across the road, off the highway, and up a slight grassy incline. The vehicle overturned and landed on its top with the driver's side pushed up against a tree. Walters testified that she did not lose consciousness during the accident and that her "first memory" of what happened was that her body was "light as a feather." She recalled having pain in her head, neck and right arm but could not feel or move her legs.

         Michael Evans, who was also travelling on Route 619, came upon the same object in the road, hit his brakes, steered left, then pulled his vehicle onto the grass when he saw Walters' vehicle "up on the bank."[2] According to Evans, Walters' vehicle was "inverted, on its top, up against the tree, " which "was against the driver's side." Because the vehicle was "resting on a slope, " the driver's side "was closer to the ground than the passenger side." Evans testified that the "back of the convertible bows, " or the beams across the top, "appeared to be holding the vehicle up, but the front of the hood and windshield . . . were flat on the ground."

         Because Evans could not enter the vehicle through the driver's side, he broke the glass out of the passenger's side window, reached through the window, and opened the passenger's side door. He then crawled into the vehicle and turned off the ignition.[3] At that time, he noticed that the windshield header was separated from the soft top such that the top "was actually underneath of the windshield." Evans cut Walters' seat belt and lowered her to "where she was flat on the top." He then cut out the vehicle's acrylic rear window and crawled into the vehicle. He observed that Walters "had a head injury and was bleeding from like the top of her forehead." Because Walters told Evans she could not feel her legs, he was reluctant to move her. Evans held Walters' head stable and remained with her until emergency medical personnel arrived on scene.

         B. Allegations Against Mazda

         In Walters' second amended complaint, she contends that Mazda Motor Corporation and Mazda Motor of America, Inc. were negligent because they designed, manufactured, and placed into the stream of commerce the Mazda Miata convertible model, which was unreasonably dangerous for its ordinary and/or foreseeable use "in that it would not provide reasonable occupant protection in a foreseeable rollover while being used in its closed top configuration" due to defects in the "design of the A-pillar, windshield header, and the roof latching system" and in failing to warn of such danger.[4] Walters also contends that all defendants breached their warranties "that the subject vehicle was reasonably fit and safe for its ordinary and/or foreseeable purposes" and "was of merchantable quality throughout" for the same reasons. Walters claims that her injuries were proximately caused by these asserted acts of negligence and breaches of warranty.

         C. Walters' Expert Testimony at Trial

         James Mundo, an automotive engineer, was qualified as an expert witness in "automotive engineer crash management, safety management, including latches."[5] Mundo testified that there are three primary "load paths" that make up the structure of a "closed-top vehicle, a sedan kind of vehicle." The first load path is the frame of the vehicle.[6] The second load path is "the side of the vehicle" to "carry the load for components that would be on the sides of things for the car." The third load path is the "windshield area of the vehicle." These three load paths "carry the loads in the vehicle" and "if any part of this structure is disconnected, then it doesn't work as a system anymore." Mundo stated that when the load paths don't work together anymore, the results are "unpredictable" from an engineering point of view "if you get in a crash."

         According to Mundo, a convertible vehicle (as distinguished from what Mundo described as a closed-top sedan type of vehicle) may be converted "from a three-load structure to a two-load structure." When a convertible is in a closed-top configuration, the latches are "the mechanism by which this roof is locked" so that the third load path is "continuous." When the "latches are connected, the design objective is [to] have a continuous load[, ] three load path."

         Mundo explained that automotive design engineers use a "right-hand rule" to guide their design of all automobile components.

[E]ngineers have a coordinate system that's established in the design of an automobile, and it's called a right-hand rule. And what this is[, ] it's the coordinates for the vehicle. And the thumb here is the up and down, the index is front to back, and the middle finger here is cross car.
And so whenever we are talking about vibration, [7] when we are talking about the vehicle moving around, we can go to any component, any part of the car, any beam, any latch, and we can put the right-hand rule, put that there and say, "Is this thing moving in three cardinal directions, or is this thing not tied down in three cardinal directions?"

         Mundo testified that a design engineer wants to have all three cardinal directions protected on latches because "whatever you are latching, you want to keep it connected for all foreseeable crashes." Mundo cited as an example a door latch, which is "connected in all three cardinal directions."

         Mundo first examined Walters' vehicle in November 2012, over six years after the accident. He came to the conclusion that "the connections failed" in the load three path, which "allowed the windshield to go do its own thing and the roof to go do its own thing." Mundo used a roof latch removed from another 1995 Mazda Miata to demonstrate to the jury how the latch operated and how it could come apart in his hand.[8] By moving the latch parts in his hands, Mundo testified he could "show that it's not locked in the vertical direction." Mundo explained that automotive design engineers use a design process called "failure mode and effects analysis" in which they "have to think about how can [a component part] fail" and "if it does fail, what's the effect." In performing this analysis, "an engineer sitting at a desk getting component parts is going to look at it with respect to how does it fail" and "he is going to work with it" and "check three cardinal directions." Mundo stated that "if I could take it apart by hand, that is something that is troubling from a failure mode with respect to the real world vehicle."

         According to Mundo, it has been "state of the art" in the automotive industry since 1972 that "[i]f it's going to be latched, it's latched in three cardinal directions." Mundo compared the Mazda Miata roof latch to a Ford Mustang roof latch in which there is a "big, long, solid steel bar, and it's not chamfered.[9] It's a steel bar that goes into a hole. And when it's in there, it's not coming out." Mundo testified that "it is not reasonably prudent to not design into the latch mechanism all three cardinal directions with the top down just because it can be released and put back." "[W]ith the top up, " stated Mundo, "we are trying to design a system that will get everybody to share in the way the loads are distributed throughout the vehicle."

         Mundo testified that, in his opinion, the windshield header and soft top became disconnected in the crash because the latches came "undone." He further testified that the latches came undone because "the up and down is dependent on that tiny little nub that was in there, and it wasn't sufficient to hold it and it came apart." In Mundo's opinion, the latch was defectively designed because the pin and hole "are chamfered" so that "it's easy for [the pin] to move and pop right out of [the hole]." According to Mundo, if "the connection had remained connected, then the front end of the roof structure would have performed just like the back end of the roof structure, " which did not collapse. In order to reach his opinion, Mundo stated it was unnecessary for him to do testing

[b]ecause the issue at hand is that the joints were not connected, and there was no damage to the devices that were doing the connecting. And the crash spoke for itself. There it is. It's not connected. And that's really ofttimes the way engineers like to look at it. That's a field crash test, if you will, a real world crash test out on the nation's highways. And that test speaks for itself. It came apart.

(Emphasis added.) Mundo also stated that based on a cost of 20 to 25 cents per pound of steel for components, it would have cost Mazda 10 cents per latch to manufacture a latch that would follow the "right-hand rule."[10]

         Mundo testified that he did not apply any safety standards other than the "right-hand rule." Mundo confirmed that he did not rely on any automotive engineering papers, literature or written standards to support his opinion. He stated he did not perform a vibration analysis of the vehicle and did not attempt to calculate any of the vibrations that the vehicle underwent during the crash. Mundo also stated that he did not conduct any studies to determine under what circumstances vibration will cause the roof latches to part. He testified that he performed no testing of a Mazda Miata soft top or latch or testing of any kind in connection with this case except for his courtroom "demonstration that [the latch] comes apart . . . by disengaging the latching mechanism."

         Mundo acknowledged that he performed no testing or analysis of the Ford latching system that he compared to the latch on the Mazda Miata. He testified that he does not know how much weight the Ford latching system will support if the latches are connected. He also testified that he doesn't know how much weight the Mazda latching system will support when the latches are connected. Furthermore, he declined to say that the Ford Mustang latching system was a reasonably safe alternative, as indicated during the following colloquy:

Q Have you performed any tests of the Ford system?
A No.
Q Have you perform[ed] any analysis of the Ford system?
A No.
Q Do you know how much weight the Ford system will support if the latches are connected?
A I don't know the answer to that. I didn't - I wasn't asked to calculate the weights and the forces for the -
Q Don't know. Do you know how much weight the Mazda system will support when the latches are connected?
A If we are just talking static and putting a weight on the roof?
Q Have you done that calculation?
A No.
Q All right, thank you. Do you know how much - have you done any calculations to determine the weight bearing capacity of any aspect of the Mazda or the Ford?
A No.
Q How would you show that a system is reasonably safe? Wouldn't you ...

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