Pennsylvania Record

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Superior Court backs Volkswagen after widow alleged defective fuel tank caused husband's death


By Charmaine Little | Aug 1, 2019

Superior Court of Pennsylvania Judge Maria McLaughlin

HARRISBURG -- A design defect in a Volkswagen Passat did not cause a man’s death after a fiery and fatal crash, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed July 19.

Jane E. Davis sued Volkswagen and a variety of other companies after her husband, Robert N. Davis died in a car accident while driving a 2007 Passat in February 2012. Court documents allege when Davis’ car was struck, it forced his VW Passat to the shoulder of the road. It landed on its side and caught on fire, killing Davis. 

Jane Davis sued on behalf of herself and her and Robert Davis’ children, alleging a design defect in the Passat’s fuel tank caused her husband's death. During the Lehigh County trial, the jury was presented with instructions, which Jane Davis took issue with in the appeal. 

The lower court had ruled that it would instruct the jury that the person in the other car was negligent, and that’s what caused the accident and ultimately Davis' death. 

It also said the verdict slip would use the term “factual cause” in determining the alleged defect’s possible liability. The lower court determined that although the Passat’s fuel tank was defective, it did not cause the crash or bring any harm to Robert Davis.

The court first decided if the jury instructions could in any way confuse or mislead the jury. Although it said some phrases could be misleading when read by themselves (for example, while it let the jury know about the other driver’s negligence, it could have also told the jury that other factors contributed as well). Still, it added, “We cannot view these statements in isolation.” 

When considered as a whole, it’s not an abuse of discretion. “The court adequately informed the jury as to concurrent liability and that any defect could be a cause of harm, and that Volkswagen must be found liable if a defect on the Passat caused harm,” the Superior Court added.

Jane Davis also said in the appeal that the court should not have directed a verdict against the other driver on the verdict slip, stating the other driver was negligent and was the source of her husband's passing. But the court pointed out that there was no issue at trial that the other driver was not only negligent, but that that the driver Davis.

Also, since Jane Davis did not take issue with the term “factual cause" before her appeal, her argument that the court didn’t properly instruct concerning proximate cause also failed.

The court also determined that the verdict wasn’t inconsistent and didn’t establish liability.

Finally, it ruled, “[Mrs.] Davis’ additional contention that the trial court instructing the jury on the risk-utility test somehow prevented her from litigating the case under her chosen theory -- the consumer expectation test – is meritless because the court also instructed the jury on that test.”

The court also didn’t take into account Volkswagen’s cross-appeal since it sided with Volkswagen on Jane Davis’ appeal.

Judge Maria McLaughlin wrote the opinion. Judges Mary Jane Bowes and Victor P. Stabile concurred.

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