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Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc.

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Fifth Division

March 17, 2014

JAKLIN MIKHAL ROMINE, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
JOHNSON CONTROLS, INC., et al., Defendants and Appellants.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. BC386031 Jan A. Pluim, Judge.

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COUNSEL

Bisnar Chase, Brian D. Chase, Scott Ritsema, and Jill P. McDonell for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Reed Smith, Margaret M. Grignon and Anne M. Grignon for Defendants and Appellants.

OPINION

MOSK, Acting P. J.

INTRODUCTION

A vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed slammed into a line of vehicles stopped at an intersection, thus propelling a vehicle into the back of plaintiff Jaklin Mikhal Romine’s Nissan Frontier pickup truck. The force of the collision caused plaintiff’s seatback to collapse and plaintiff to slide up the seat. Plaintiff’s head struck her vehicle’s back seat, and she suffered spinal injuries that rendered her a quadriplegic. Plaintiff brought an action for her injuries against various persons and entities including the only remaining defendants at trial, Ikeda Engineering Corporation (Ikeda), which participated in the design of her vehicle’s seat, and Vintec Co. (Vintec), which manufactured her vehicle’s seat.[1] Plaintiff tried her strict products liability action to a jury on a consumer expectations design defect theory. The jury returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor in the amount of $24, 744, 764, and found that defendants were 20 percent at fault for her injuries. After offsets for settlements with other defendants and an award of costs to plaintiff, the trial court entered judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $4, 606, 926.68.

On appeal, defendants contend that the trial court erred in permitting plaintiff to try her strict products liability action under the consumer expectations design defect test rather than under the risk/benefit design defect test;

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the component parts doctrine precluded a finding of strict products liability against defendants; Ikeda, as a provider of engineering services, could not be held strictly liable for a product it designed but did not manufacture, sell, or otherwise place in the stream of commerce; the trial court improperly excluded evidence in connection with the apportionment of fault among other manufacturers; and the trial court erred in permitting plaintiff to introduce evidence of the full amount billed for her past medical care rather than the amount her medical care providers accepted. Plaintiff also appeals, asserting that the trial court erred in failing to award her expert witness fees pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 998 and prejudgment interest pursuant to Civil Code section 3291.

Because Ikeda could not be held strictly liable for engineering services it provided and the trial court erred in barring defendants from apportioning fault for plaintiff’s injuries to other manufacturers, we reverse the judgment and remand the matter for a retrial limited to the issue of apportionment of fault. The jury’s finding of defendants’ liability, except as to Ikeda, and its finding that plaintiff suffered damages of $24, 744, 764 are affirmed and are not to be a part of the retrial.

BACKGROUND

Raymond Gallie exited the 210 Freeway at a high rate of speed in his Ford Mustang. Plaintiff and her boyfriend were stopped in plaintiff’s Frontier in a line of automobile traffic at a red light on a street at the end of the freeway off-ramp—plaintiff was in the driver's seat and her boyfriend was in the passenger seat. A Volvo was in the front of the line, a Mercedes was behind the Volvo, plaintiff’s Frontier was behind the Mercedes, and a Nissan Altima was behind plaintiff’s Frontier.

The Mustang hit the rear of the Altima, starting a chain reaction of collisions. A collision pushed the Altima into the rear of plaintiff’s Frontier, which was pushed into the rear of the Mercedes, which was pushed into the rear of the Volvo, which came to a rest in the intersection. The Mustang was traveling between 70 and 86 miles per hour when it hit the Altima. The Altima was propelled forward at a speed of between 42 and 43 miles per hour when it hit plaintiff’s Frontier. Plaintiff’s Frontier was propelled forward at a speed of between 24 and 27 miles per hour when it was struck by the Altima. The Mercedes, which was severely damaged when struck by plaintiff’s Frontier, was propelled forward at a speed of 18 miles per hour.

Plaintiff was wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident. Plaintiff’s seat fell back when her Frontier was struck from behind. After the accident, plaintiff tried to move but could not. When the fire department paramedics

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arrived, the position of plaintiff’s seat was reclined. Plaintiff was in the “supine position”—reclined and facing forward or up. Plaintiff said that she could not feel her legs, had no sensation from her waist down, and had no sensation or had numbness on both sides of her body. A paramedic concluded that plaintiff had a spinal injury.

Plaintiff was taken to the hospital where she was diagnosed with two broken and two dislocated vertebrae in her neck. Plaintiff underwent surgery after which she still could not move. The doctors told her that she would not be able to walk again. Over time, with physical therapy, plaintiff regained some functioning in her hands. She could not move her fingers, but could grasp things with two hands.

Plaintiff filed an action for injuries she suffered in the rear-end collision. She alleged three causes of action: (1) strict products liability against Nissan Motor Co., Ltd; Nissan North America, Inc.; Nissan Design American, Inc., and Nissan Technical Center North America, Inc. (subsequently added by Doe amendment) (the Nissan defendants); (2) negligent products liability against the Nissan defendants; and (3) negligence and negligent entrustment against the estate of Christopher Clark, the driver of the vehicle that struck plaintiff’s Frontier, and Diane Kornman, who owned and permitted Clark to use the vehicle that struck plaintiff’s Frontier. Plaintiff added by Doe amendments Johnson Controls, Inc.; Ikeda; Vintec; Autoliv ASP, Inc., which designed and manufactured the Frontier’s seat belts; and Faurecia Automotive Seating, Inc. and Faurecia NA SPG, one of which manufactured the recliner mechanism in the Frontier’s driver’s seat.

According to the judgment, prior to trial, plaintiff settled with Gallie, Clark’s estate, the Nissan defendants, the “Autoliv defendants, ” and Faurecia Automotive Seating.[2] Plaintiff elected to proceed at trial solely on her strict products liability cause of action.

Steven Meyer, plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert, testified that when a vehicle is struck from behind and the vehicle’s seat falls down, the seat’s occupant will move up the back of the seat or “ramp” towards the back of the vehicle. As the seat lies down, two things happen with respect to the seat belt—the hips of the seat’s occupant rotate slightly causing the lapbelt to

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loosen allowing the occupant to slide up and under the lap belt, and the shoulder belt becomes slack and loose. As the occupant moves rearward, the shoulder belt is no longer operative—i.e., it provides no resistance as the occupant moves away from and not into the shoulder belt. Meyer opined that when plaintiff’s Frontier was struck from behind, plaintiff’s seat “deflected” rearward and away from the shoulder belt, which slackened by six inches, and the lap belt, which slackened by two inches. Meyer explained that the type of latch plate on plaintiff’s seat belt—the part that is inserted into the seat belt’s buckle—allowed the seat belt to slide through the latch plate thus permitting the slack in the shoulder belt to combine with the slack in the lap belt. The lap belt could not prevent “ramping” because it could not stay tight either due to hip rotation or looseness in the shoulder belt. Meyer concluded that the seat belt, in the configuration in plaintiff’s Frontier, could not prevent a driver from “ramping.”

Dr. Kenneth Saczalski, plaintiff’s structural engineering expert, testified that he inspected the driver’s seat in plaintiff’s Frontier. The seat had a two-part recliner consisting of the outboard recliner—the recliner closest to the door, and the inboard recliner—the recliner closest to the console. The recliners had lower brackets that attached to the seat cushion frame and upper brackets that attached to the seatback frame. The recliners had gears that allowed the seatback to be adjusted and held the seatback in place—i.e., from going backwards. The recliners contained a “locking pawl”—a set of small gears that engaged with another gear, the sector gear, to hold the seatback in place. Some of the teeth on the locking pawl on the inboard recliner of plaintiff’s seat were broken off, thus allowing the gears to move without staying locked in place and allowing the seatback to fall backwards. The gears on the outboard locking pawl showed similar damage and were out of alignment. Dr. Saczalski opined that the accident caused those conditions. On cross examination, he testified that he would not expect the “release of the teeth” as “one of the expected modes of release at the maximum moment”; instead he would expect damage and deformation in the seat’s frame structure.

Dr. Saczalski conducted a crash test “to replicate a substantially similar rear impact from a force and energy point of view as what [plaintiff’s] vehicle experienced in this accident.” He used a 110 pound dummy in the test—i.e., a dummy that was lighter than plaintiff[3] because he wanted to determine how the seat would perform with a lighter occupant under the same impact severity. He was performing a conservative analysis of how the seat would perform under the same conditions. The recliner in the test broke

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in a manner similar to the manner in which the recliner in plaintiff’s Frontier seat broke—the teeth on the locking pawl broke off and the locking pawl could not hold the sector gear. Although the dummy was wearing a lap belt, as the seat cushion compressed, the dummy’s buttocks moved in and up the seat. That is, Dr. Saczalski testified that the dummy “ramped” up the seat.

Dr. Joseph Burton, plaintiff’s expert on biomechanics (effect of forces on organic bodies), kinematics (how objects behave when a force acts on them), and forensic pathology in car accidents, testified that the primary force on plaintiff’s head that caused her injuries was downward. As plaintiff had no significant head injuries, in order to injure her neck as she did, something had to stop her head without seriously injuring it. Dr. Burton stated that she would have suffered the neck injuries if her seatback reclined, her torso moved backward, and the seatback behind her stopped her head. He further opined that plaintiff would not have received the same types of injuries if her seat had remained upright. According to Dr. Burton, in a rear-end collision, when the seat collapses, a shoulder belt does not do anything and the lap belt remains in place. Dr. Burton testified that the accident was within the one to five percent most severe rear-end accidents.

David Brow, Johnson Controls, Inc.’s Engineering Director of the Nissan Business Unit in North America, testified that Johnson Controls provided its customer Nissan with seat products. Ikeda, an engineering company, designed and Vintec manufactured the seats for the Frontier. Ikeda did not manufacture the seat or any parts for the seat, and it did not sell the seat. The primary components of the seat were its structural components: the back frame, cushion frame, recliner mechanism, and slide or track mechanism, which allowed the seat to move forward and backwards. Ikeda did not design the recliner, slide, or track mechanisms.

Randy Tighe, defendants’ engineering expert, testified that the force of the accident significantly exceeded the design level of the Frontier’s seat. Thus, the driver’s seat performed in the accident as an engineer would expect it to perform. Catherine Corrigan, defendants’ biomechanical engineering expert, testified that plaintiff sustained the injuries to her neck during the rear-end impact by the Altima.

The parties entered into the following stipulations that were presented to the jury:

(1) “Vintec manufactured the seat in the subject vehicle. Ikeda participated in the design of the seat ...


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