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COA reverses judgment for Ford in liability suit

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment today in favor of Ford Motor Co. in a products liability lawsuit, but the judges disagreed as to whether the manufacturer breached its duty to warn of the dangers of children riding in the front seat with airbags turned on.

In Peter and Lori Cook, as parents and next best friend of Lindsey Jo Cook, minor v. Ford Motor Co., No. 49A02-0802-CV-130, the Cooks sued Ford after their 8-year-old daughter, Lindsey, suffered severe head trauma when the front passenger seat airbag deployed during a minor accident. Lindsey had removed her seatbelt prior to the accident.

The Cooks claimed her injuries were caused in part by Ford's defective instruction and warnings with respect to the front passenger seat airbag and the airbag deactivation switch. Peter and Lori Cook admitted to not reading the entire owner's manual or the airbag warning on the front seat visor regarding airbags. Based on what they did read, they believed airbags should only be turned off in the front seat when a child is riding in a rear-facing safety seat.

The appellate court ruled that 49 C.F.R. Section 571.208 - Standard 208 - of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, doesn't preempt the Cooks' failure to warn claim. The Cooks argued waiver for the purposes of the appeal and wanted the Court of Appeals to prohibit Ford from raising S4.5.4.4 of the Safety Act on remand. That section explains what information a vehicle owner's manual shall provide regarding the airbag cutoff device.

The judges decided that Wyeth v. Levine, 129 S. Ct. 1187 (2009), should control the instant case. It also held that S4.5.4.4 provides a floor for the warnings that are to be included in an owner's manual with respect to airbag safety and use of the cutoff device, but it isn't a ceiling. The points addressed in that section must be included in the owner's manual, but the specific language isn't mandated and additional points aren't foreclosed, wrote Judge Margret Robb.

The appellate judges disagreed on the Cooks' claim for breach of duty to warn on the dangers associated with the truck's airbags. Judges Robb and Terry Crone couldn't say whether the instructions were adequate as a matter of law and questioned whether a reasonable person would have understood based on Ford's instructions that an injury could occur under the circumstances of this case. The majority also reversed summary judgment regarding proximate cause.

"Whether the backseat instruction, in conjunction with the airbag instruction, is adequate to warn of the dangers to children of airbag deployment and whether the Cooks' failure to follow the backseat instruction was a reasonably foreseeable intervening cause is, again, a question of fact properly reserved for the jury," wrote Judge Robb.

Judge Elaine Brown dissented because she believed the Cooks failed to comply with Ford's adequate warning to put children in the backseat of a car and to always wear their safety belts. There's no dispute the truck's manual contained warnings about those dangers and that it was possible for the parents to have Lindsey sit in the backseat at the time the accident occurred, she wrote.

The Court of Appeals also unanimously affirmed the denial of Ford's motion for fees and costs incurred during the first trial of this cause. The case is remanded for further proceedings.

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