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EXPERT TESTIMONY - CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE - WANTONNESS - GOOD COUNT/BAD COUNT DOCTRINE - EXCESSIVENESS OF WRONGFUL DEATH VERDICT - MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION V. HURST

Mazda Motor Corporation v. Hurst, [Ms. 1140545, July 7, 2017] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2017). In a decision authored by Justice Murdock (Stuart, C.J., and Bolin, Wise, and Sellers, JJ., concurring and with Parker, Main, and Bryan, JJ., concurring in part and dissenting as to the reversal of the verdict finding Mazda liable for wantonness to the injured driver), the Court affirms a judgment for wrongful death in the amount of $3.9 million for the death of a 16-year-old passenger killed when the 2008 Mazda 3 in which she was riding burst into flames after striking a utility pole at 35 miles an hour. The Court affirms a compensatory award of $3 million to the driver and reverses and renders a $3 million punitive damage award to the driver finding no substantial evidence of wantonness by Mazda in the design of the fuel system of the Mazda 3.

The wrongful-death claim on behalf of the passenger went to the jury on a sole theory alleging violation of the Alabama Extended Manufacturers Liability Doctrine (AEMLD). The driver’s claims went to the jury under the AEMLD and on wantonness.

Mazda contended it was entitled to a new trial because the trial court erred in allowing plaintiff’s expert to testify that design defects in the Mazda 3’s fuel system probably caused the post-crash fire. The Court first considered whether Mazda had preserved this issue for review and concluded that Mazda’s pre-trial motion in limine to exclude the expert and its renewal of that motion during the trial preserved the issue for review. Ms. *23.

However, the Court rejected Mazda’s contention that plaintiff’s expert was subject to criteria applied to scientific testimony. The Court concluded

Wallingford’s testimony makes it clear that the determination of probabilities was based on his specialized knowledge of automotive technology and his experience with automotive-fuel fires, not on a scientific formula or theory.

In fact, it is apparent from a fair reading of Wallingford’s testimony as a whole that all of his conclusions were based on his own specialized knowledge and experience in and with automotive technology in the automotive industry and not “on a scientific theory, principle, methodology, or procedure.”

Ms. *32-33. The Court rejected Mazda’s contention that the expert’s reference to having employed the “scientific method” required that he meet the criteria applied to scientific testimony per Rule 702(b) of the Alabama Rules of Evidence. The Court noted that there were only four such instances in his 230 pages of testimony and that those instances also were consistent with the expert testifying based on his knowledge and experience rather than “on a scientific theory, principle, methodology, or procedure.” Ibid.

Mazda also argued that the trial court erred in refusing to charge the jury on contributory negligence. The Court rejected the argument, noting that Mazda’s theory and the testimony of its expert upon which it was based

[D]oes not adequately address the distinction between negligence that might have contributed to causing the accident and negligence that might have contributed to causing the actionable AEMLD injuries in this case. Neither Patterson’s testimony nor Mazda’s argument articulates a difference, or indicates how to distinguish, between vehicular speed that might have merely caused the accident and some greater vehicular speed sufficient to cause the failure of an otherwise crashworthy fuel-system design.

Ms. *44-45.

The Court agreed with Mazda’s contention that the evidence was not sufficient to warrant submission of the driver’s wantonness claim to the jury. The Court cited

[T]he dearth of evidence indicating that Mazda had knowledge that its fuel-system design in the subject Mazda 3 probably would result in the kind of fire that occurred in this case, Sydney (the driver) failed to produce substantial evidence in support of her wantonness claim. Therefore, the trial court erred in refusing to enter a judgment as a matter of law in Mazda’s favor on that claim.

Ms. *60.

Mazda argued that because there was insufficient to support submission of the wantonness claim to the jury, the judgment on the jury’s verdict in favor of the driver must be vacated in its entirety because there was no way to know whether the verdict was rendered on the good (AEMLD) count or the bad (wantonness) count. However, the Court rejected this argument, because the jury had found for the passenger on her only claim alleging breach of the AEMLD. The Court noted that the AEMLD claims of the driver and of the passenger were based on the very same evidence. Ms. *62. Accordingly, the Court reached the practical solution of affirming the verdict for the driver for compensatory damages and reversing the verdict in her favor for punitive damages.

Finally, the Court rejected Mazda’s excessiveness challenge to the $3.9 million verdict for the wrongful death of the passenger. The Court first noted that “certain factors [] may be considered in evaluating reprehensibility even though no wantonness is present.” The Court explained:

“The legislature has authorized the jury to ascertain an amount of damages appropriate to the goal sought to be achieved – preservation of life because of the enormity of the wrong .... The jury’s consideration of the ‘enormity of the wrong’ includes assessing the finality of death, the propriety of punishing the wrongdoer or wrongdoers, whether the death could have been prevented, and, if so, the lack of difficulty that would have been involved in preventing the death, as well as the public’s interest in deterring others from committing the same or similar wrongful conduct.”

Ms. *68-69, quoting Campbell v. Williams, 638 So. 2d 804, 811 (Ala. 1994). The Court rejected Mazda’s excessiveness challenge. The $3.9 million verdict was not out of line with verdicts in similar cases and the plaintiff had demonstrated that avoiding the defect found by the jury in the fuel system of the Mazda 3 would not have been difficult. Ms. *69.

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