The District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fifth District, recently decided a case involving products liability. The case arose from a 2003 auto accident when a couple’s Ford Aerostar allegedly went from standing still into an acceleration that injured the wife. According to the couple’s lawsuit, Ford knew that the van’s cruise control system was defectively designed such that it allowed electromagnetic interference to cause a sudden acceleration from a standstill position.
In Florida, products liability lawsuits brought 12 years after purchase of a product that has an expected useful life of 10 years or less are barred unless the manufacturer knows of and conceals a defect. The couple claimed their case fell into this exception to the bar because the car company actively concealed the defect. During trial, however, the husband testified he might have touched the accelerator.
Before trial, the couple claimed that the car company committed fraud by concealing its knowledge of the sudden accelerations and by pushing the theory that the husband stepped on the gas instead of the brake, causing the acceleration. The trial court did not rule immediately, instead moving the case into trial. After closing arguments, the jury found for the car company, finding that the company did not put the car on the market with a defect that caused the wife’s injury and that there was no negligence by the car company that caused the wife’s injury.
After trial, the couple filed a request for relief from judgment and a new trial. The basis for these motions was that the car company perpetrated a fraud upon the court by putting forward a pedal misapplication defense while knowing that sudden acceleration in its cars was caused by electromagnetic interference.
The trial court found that the car company committed a fraud upon the court, struck the car company’s answer and affirmative defenses and entered judgment on liability in favor of the couple. The judge also ordered a trial on the question of damages.
The car company appealed, claiming that the court had erred in finding it committed fraud. The appellate court explained that fraud on the court occurs where a partly consciously puts forward a scheme calculated to improperly influence a trier of fact or affect another party’s case.
In its review, the appellate court looked at the trial court’s four reasons for finding the car company committed a fraud upon the court. The first reason was that the car company unlawfully destroyed evidence relating to a cruise control defect within 1 year after its creation. The appellate court found that the record did not support the ruling and that there was no evidence that numerous engineering reports identifying the defect had been concealed. Since the couple’s suit was to be filed far in the future, even if there was a destruction of evidence it was not calculated to affect the couple’s suit. The appellate court similarly found there was no evidence in the record for the trial court’s other stated reasons for finding a fraud upon the court.
The car company also sought a reversal of the trial court’s grant of a new trial. The appellate court agreed with the car company, finding that conflicting testimony had been presented regarding a causal defect in the cruise control system, as well as whether there was negligence and whether the husband had accidentally stepped on the accelerator. Reasonable inferences could be drawn either way. Therefore, the appellate court ruled, the couple was not entitled to a new trial.
Products liability cases require consultation with experts and vigorous handling. If you or a loved one has experienced personal injuries as the result of what you believe may be a defective product or a car accident, call the careful and hardworking South Florida personal injury attorneys of Friedman, Rodman & Frank for a consultation at 877-448-8585.
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