Court of Appeals Reverses Negligent Design Verdi

On July 1 of this year, New York's highest court ordered a new trial in a negligence case against automaker Volvo. The case arose from an unusual accident, where the plaintiff alleged Volvo's defective design contributed to his horrific injuries. While a Manhattan jury ruled for the plaintiff and awarded damages, the New York Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, finding the verdict resulted from an improper jury instruction by the trial judge.

Reis v. Volvo Cars of North America

The accident at the heart of this case was unusual in that it did not occur while the car was actually in traffic. In 2002, Manuel Reis went to look at his friend's 1987 Volvo station wagon. While the two men stood in front of the parked car, Reis' friend turned on the ignition so they could see how the engine functioned while running. At that point, the car “lurched forward,” pinning Reis to a wall. Reis subsequently lost his left leg.

Reis sued Volvo for negligent design. He argued the vehicle's manual transmission was known to “lurch” while parked unless a starter interlock was installed. Reis said Volvo knew of this issue when it initially manufactured the vehicle in 1987, and should either have installed the interlock or warned customers of the potential danger.

At trial before Manhattan Supreme Court, the judge instructed the jury that Volvo's “special training and experience in designing and manufacturing automobiles” meant it had a “duty to use the same degree of skill and care” that any automobile manufacturer “would reasonably use in the same situation.” The jury ultimately found Volvo negligent in failing to install an interlock, but also found the car's design was not defective. The jury nevertheless awarded damages to Reis. (The jury also ruled for Reis on the failure to warn claim, but the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court later reversed in Volvo's favor.)

In its review of the case, the New York Court of Appeals found the “special training and experience” instruction was inappropriate. In fact, that instruction “was designed for malpractice cases,” according to Associate Judge Robert S. Smith, who authored the Court's majority opinion. Judge Smith found that, in malpractice cases, it must be assumed the defendant, such as a physician, is held to the same standards as any other member of his or her professional community. But in this case, the proper question was whether a “reasonable person” would believe Volvo's design was negligent given the known risks of not installing an interlock. Judge Smith suggested the trial judge's incorrect instruction led to the jury's confused verdict.

The Court of Appeals did not address the sufficiency of the evidence against Volvo, as it confined its decision to a review of the jury instructions. This means the case may return to Manhattan Supreme Court for retrial.

Getting Instructions Right

The Court of Appeals' decision in this case highlights the critical importance of jury instructions in determining the outcome of personal injury cases. Millions of dollars in damages can hinge on how a judge explains the law to a layperson jury. That is why, if you are the victim of an accident arising from defective automobile design, you should contact an experienced New York personal injury attorney right away.