Couple needed expert testimony to show proximate cause in defective air bag suit

February 11, 2015

A couple suing Ford Motor Company, alleging their 2003 Mercury Mountaineer was defective because the air bags did not deploy in an accident, lost their case because they failed to designate expert testimony to support their claim.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Howard Piltch, et al. v. Ford Motor Company, et al., 14-1965, affirmed summary judgment for Ford on Howard and Barbara Piltches’ claims under the Indiana Products Liability Act and the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The two were involved in accidents in the Mountaineer in 2006 and 2007 – both times the air bags did not deploy. The two sustained serious injuries in the second crash.

They sold the car in 2009 to a mechanic who reprogrammed the car’s black box, wiping any data that might remain from either crash.

A year later, the Piltches sued Ford, but never served any expert reports. They claimed they did not need an expert and that circumstantial evidence – the Mountaineer’s owner’s manual and Howard Piltch’s testimony – created genuine issues of material fact as to defect and proximate cause. The federal court granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment on all the claims.

The 7th Circuit agreed with the lower court that the circumstantial evidence was insufficient to create a legal inference as to proximate cause. It also agreed with regard to res ipsa loquitur, that the couple’s circumstantial evidence was not enough to negate all possible causes other than defect for the air bags’ failure to inflate.

“The Piltches ask the court to find their own testimony combined with the manual’s instructions sufficient to permit an inference of defect and of proximate cause. But it is not – without expert testimony, a jury would only be able to speculate as to the viability of the Piltches’ IPLA claims,” Judge William Bauer wrote.


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