Torts II, Pages 816–819

Friedman v. General Motors Corp.

Supreme Court of Ohio, 1975

Facts:

Plaintiff turned off his car waiting in line to get gas. When it was his turn, he started it while in gear and it leaped forward and crashed, injuring him and his family.

Procedural History:

  • Trial court granted defendant a directed verdict on the ground that plaintiff had not proved that the vehicle was defective.

  • The appellate court reversed.

Issue:

Was plaintiffs' evidence sufficient to overcome defendant's motion for a directed verdict?

Rule:

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To sustain [one's motion for product defect, he must] prove that the [product], was defective; that the defect existed at the time the product left the factory; and that the defect was the direct and proximate cause of the accident and injuries. A defect may be proven by circumstantial evidence, where a preponderance of that evidence establishes that the accident was caused by a defect and not other possibilities, although not all other possibilities need be eliminated.

Plaintiff's Arguments:

  • The linkages and adjustments were the originals, so if the defect existed, it must have been made by the manufacturer.

  • Plaintiffs always started the car in Park, so they had no opportunity to discover the defect.

  • Eye witnesses can testify that it accelerated immediately. The transmission is also stuck in a forward position since the accident.

  • After the accident, the car still started in the Drive position and accelerated to 30 mph in five seconds.

  • If the contacts in the start switch were in Neutral or Park when the transmission was in drive, the key would start the car and the wheels would immediate rotate.

Reasoning:

In light of the facts presented, possibility the possibility of plaintiff's theory approaches probability.

Holding:

Yes, a jury could have reasonably concluded that defendant was guilty of manufacturing a defective automobile. Affirmed.

Dissenting Opinion:

Stern: Although plaintiff's evidence may show that something was wrong with the vehicle, it does not show that defendant caused it. There are five ways that a theory such as plaintiff's that the indicator and transmission gear linkages became misaligned could be proved:

  1. Plaintiff could offer expert testimony inspecting it after the crash and saying so.
  2. There could be evidence of a damaging event occurring in the course or use of a product.
  3. Plaintiff could produce evidence of a damaging event occurring in the course or use of a product and expert testimony that the most likely cause was a defect in the product.
  4. In addition to evidence of an accident and the probable cause thereof, plaintiff could have also offered to negate the existence of other causes.
  5. In some cases, the physical evidence of the condition of the product would be such that a layman could infer that it was defective.
There is no evidence that this was because of the defendant or that it existed when the car was sold. The trial court's judgment was correct.