The Indiana Supreme Court recently answered a certified question from the federal court asking whether, in a crash-worthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Products Liability Act, the finder of fact shall apportion fault to the person suffering physical harm when that alleged fault relates to the cause of the underlying accident. Green v. Ford Motor Co., No. 94S00-1007-CQ-348 (Ind. 2/8/11). The court answered in the affirmative, laying out a two-step procedure for the consideration of a plaintiff's fault in enhanced-injury cases.
The case was a damages action by Nicholas Green against Ford Motor Company under the Indiana Product Liability Act, asserting that Green's 1999 Ford Explorer vehicle was defective and unreasonably dangerous, and that Ford was negligent in its design of the vehicle's restraint system. Back in 2006, while Green was driving the vehicle, it left the road, struck a guardrail, rolled down an embankment, and came to rest upside down in a ditch. Green sustained severe injuries. He sued, claiming that his injuries were substantially enhanced because of the alleged defects in the vehicle's restraint system. In the federal case, Green moved in limine to exclude any evidence of his alleged contributory negligence on the grounds that any conduct by him in causing the vehicle to leave the road and strike the guardrail was not relevant to whether Ford's negligent design of the restraint system caused him to suffer greater injuries he would not have otherwise suffered.
So in this "crash-worthiness" claim for the "enhanced injuries" suffered, Green sought to exclude evidence at trial regarding his own alleged initial negligence resulting in the vehicle leaving the road and striking the guardrail. Ford asserted that Green's product liability lawsuit is subject to Indiana's statutory comparative fault principles, which require the jury to consider the fault of Green in causing or contributing to the physical harm he suffered.
The "Crash-worthiness Doctrine" has been identified in numerous cases, e.g., Larsen v. General Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495, 502 (8th Cir. 1968). The notion is that, in light of the statistical inevitability of collisions, a vehicle manufacturer must use reasonable care in designing a vehicle to avoid subjecting the user to an unreasonable risk of injury in the event of a collision. The reasoning is that the manufacturer should be liable for that portion of the damage or injury caused by the defective design over and above the damage or injury that would have occurred as a result of the impact or collision absent the allegedly defective design. Thus a normal risk of driving must be accepted by the user, but the policy is not to penalize the user by subjecting him to an unreasonable risk of further injury due to negligence in design.
The court noted that in both the state Product Liability Act and the Comparative Fault Act, the legislature employed expansive language to describe the breadth of causative conduct that may be considered in determining and allocating fault. Both enactments require consideration of the fault of all persons who caused or contributed to cause the harm. The Comparative Fault Act further specifies that, in comparative fault actions, the "legal requirements of causal relation apply." The state legislature has thus directed that a broad range of potentially causative conduct initially may be considered by the fact-finder, but that the jury may allocate comparative fault only to those actors whose fault was a proximate cause of the claimed injury.
Therefore, in a crash-worthiness case alleging enhanced injuries under the Indiana Product Liability Act, it is the function of the fact-finder to consider and evaluate the conduct of all relevant actors who are alleged to have caused or contributed to cause the harm for which the plaintiff seeks damages. An assertion that a plaintiff is limiting his claim to "enhanced injuries" caused by only the "second collision" does not preclude the fact-finder from considering evidence of all relevant conduct of the plaintiff reasonably alleged to have contributed to cause the ultimate injuries. From that evidence, the jury must then determine whether such conduct satisfies the requirement of proximate cause. The fact-finder may allocate as comparative fault only such fault that it finds to have been a proximate cause of the claimed injuries. And if the fault of more than one actor is found to have been a proximate cause of the claimed injuries, the fact-finder, in its allocation of comparative fault, may consider the relative degree of proximate causation attributable to each of the responsible actors.
While a jury in a crash-worthiness case may receive evidence of the plaintiff's conduct alleged to have contributed to cause the claimed injuries, the issue of whether such conduct constitutes proximate cause of the injuries for which damages are sought is typically a matter for the jury to determine in its evaluation of comparative fault.