Children are frequently the innocent victims in car accidents. But what about a child injured due to a defect in a car? More precisely, what about a child born with a birth defect that may be attributed to a defect in a car's design or manufacture? New York's highest court recently addressed such a case.
In 1991, a woman was driving her 1989 BMW when she “began to notice a smell of gasoline in the vehicle.” This smell came and went over a period of several months. At times, the woman said she “it was so strong it caused her headaches, dizziness and throat irritation.” Other family members noticed a similar gasoline smell when riding in the same car. The woman said she took the car to a mechanic, but he could detect no problem with the vehicle.
Later that year, the woman became pregnant. Shortly thereafter, the same mechanic examined the vehicle for a second time and “discovered a fuel leakage into the engine compartment caused by a split fuel hose.” As it turned out, this was a defect in the vehicle's design, and the manufacturer issued a recall around 1994.
The woman delivered her baby in May 1992. The child had a number of physical and mental impairments, including a form of cerebral palsy and impaired visual function. In 2008, the child sued the auto manufacturer and the mechanic, alleging the fuel leakage “caused his injuries by exposing him in utero to toxic gasoline vapor.”
Among other evidence, the victim offered two expert witnesses to demonstrate causation—that is, connecting the birth defects to the toxic gas leakage caused by the manufacturer's failure to prevent or correct the fuel leakage. The first expert testified the child's mother “inhaled 1,000 parts per million of gasoline vapor” during the early stages of pregnancy, and this was capable of causing the birth defects found in the victim. The second expert reached the same conclusion.
The trial judge, however, agreed with the defendants that the experts' testimony was inadmissible. An intermediate appellate court upheld the trial judge's decision but also asked the New York Court of Appeals to weigh in. In a unanimous opinion issued on February 11, the Court of Appeals agreed with the two lower courts.
The problem here, the Court of Appeals explained, was that the two experts based their opinions largely on the reports of the victim's mother and other family members that they “smelled gasoline” in the car. This was not enough, the court said, to establish whether or not the victim was actually exposed to a sufficient level of gasoline fumes to cause his birth defects. The court noted neither the victim nor his experts could identify any “text, scholarly article or scientific study...that approves of or applies this type of methodology.” Here, the court said the experts were “working backwards from reported symptoms to divine an otherwise unknown concentration of gasoline vapor.”