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Ruark v. Bmw of North America, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 24, 2014

DARIN RUARK, Plaintiff,
BMW OF NORTH AMERICA, LLC, et al., Defendant.


ELLEN L. HOLLANDER, District Judge.

This suit arises from a single-vehicle accident that occurred on July 30, 2006. Plaintiff 1Darin Ruark, then a 17-year-old rising high school senior, suffered a catastrophic neck injury on that date, when the 1995 BMW 325is coupe (the "subject vehicle") in which he was riding as a front-seat passenger experienced a rollover, either two or three times. As a result of the accident, plaintiff suffered catastrophic injuries.[1]

Following the accident, plaintiff filed suit against BMW of North America, LLC, the distributor of the subject vehicle, and BMW AG, the manufacturer of the subject vehicle (collectively, "BMW"), alleging, inter alia, that BMW was negligent in designing the roof of the vehicle and that BMW is strictly liable for plaintiff's damages because the roof of the subject vehicle was defective and unreasonably dangerous.[2]

The Court has subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. In exercising diversity jurisdiction, a federal court "must apply the substantive law of the forum state including its choice of law rules." Colgan Air, Inc. v. Raytheon Aircraft Co., 507 F.3d 270, 275 (4th Cir. 2007). Maryland is, of course, the forum state. Under Maryland's choice-of-law principles, tort claims are governed by the law of the state where the alleged harm occurred (" lex loci delicto "). The accident which forms the basis of this lawsuit occurred in Maryland. Therefore, Maryland's substantive law governs this case. I must apply the law of Maryland as it has been interpreted by the Maryland Court of Appeals, without regard to my own views about the wisdom or accuracy of that court's interpretations.

In the context of plaintiff's strict liability claim (Count One), the parties disagree as to which of two tests is appropriate, under Maryland law, to determine whether BMW is strictly liable for a design defect in regard to the roof structure of the subject vehicle. One test is known as the "consumer expectation test" and the other is called the "risk-utility test."

BMW filed a motion in limine in which it requested "an order prohibiting plaintiff... from offering testimony concerning and alluding to the consumer expectation theory of products liability... to the exclusion of the risk-utility test for a design defect...." ECF 135. The motion in limine noted that BMW would provide further argument in its "pre-trial order submission." ECF 135-1. Plaintiff filed an opposition to the motion in limine, in which he urged the application of the consumer expectation test. ECF 153. BMW then filed a "Pre-Trial Memorandum of Law Regarding Applicability of Risk-Utility Test Rather Than Consumer Expectation Test." ECF 166. Thereafter, plaintiff filed "Plaintiff's Pretrial Memorandum of Law Regarding the Applicability of The Consumer Expectations Test Alone or in Conjunction with The Risk-Utility Test." ECF 169. Finally, BMW filed a Reply in support of its motion in limine. ECF 176. Argument was heard at a motions hearing held on April 22, 2014.

The consumer expectation test, which is preferred by plaintiff, derives from Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965). See Halliday v. Sturm, Ruger & Co., 368 Md. 186, 193, 792 A.2d 1145, 1150 (2002). Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A provides, in relevant part:

(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property, if
(a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and
(b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.

"Defective condition" is defined as a "condition not contemplated by the ultimate consumer, which will be unreasonably dangerous to him." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A at cmt. g; see Halliday, 368 Md. at 193, 792 A.2d at 1150. Under this test, a product is "unreasonably dangerous" if it is "dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A at cmt. i; see Halliday, 368 Md. at 193, 792 A.2d at 1150; see also W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 99, at 698 (5th ed. 1984). Arguing in favor of the consumer expectation test, plaintiff contends that "the Maryland Court of Appeals has repeatedly held that the consumer expectation test should be applied to determine whether a product is defective and unreasonably dangerous." ECF 153 at 2.

The risk-utility test, which is preferred by BMW, "regards a product as defective and unreasonably dangerous, for strict liability purposes, if the danger presented by the product outweighs its utility." Halliday, 368 Md. at 194, 792 A.2d at 1150. In Lloyd v. General Motors Corp., 275 F.R.D. 224 (D. Md. 2011) (" Lloyd II "), [3] on which BMW relies, Judge Legg explained, id. at 226:

Maryland's risk-utility test calls on the jury to make two determinations. The jury must initially assess the safety performance of the product. Then, the jury must decide whether a feasible, safer alternative design existed. The two steps are required because a product is not defective simply because it poses a risk of injury. Many useful and necessary products pose risks. A product is defective only if the danger presented by the product outweighs its utility. Investigating this balance inevitably leads the jury to focus on whether foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the seller.

Application of the risk-utility test generally requires the consideration of several factors, including the feasibility and cost of alternative product designs. See, e.g., Lloyd I, 266 F.R.D. at 108 (articulating seven-factor test).[4] As the Maryland Court of Appeals observed in Halliday, 368 Md. at 194, 792 A.2d at 1150, the "risk-utility' test" is "applied principally to alleged defects in the design of a product...." Urging application of the risk-utility test, BMW claims that "it would be pointless to ask whether a reasonable consumer would or would not expect an A-pillar to ...

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