Monday, August 29, 2005
C.A. Limits Recovery for Emotional Distress in Products Action
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The owner of a defective product has no claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress resulting from the death of a close relative who died in an accident that the owner did not see and was not involved in,, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
The court affirmed the dismissal of claims by Yan Gu for distress suffered as a result of an accident in which her sister, who was driving Yan’s 1999 BMW 328i convertible, was killed and their parents injured.
Yan’s complaint alleged that the vehicle left the highway and collided with a pole and a tree, causing fatal injuries to the driver’s head, and that the vehicle lacked “occupant protection” that would have ameliorated the effect of injuries sustained in a side-impact collision. By selling an unsafe vehicle, Yan alleged, BMW had breached her expectations as a consumer and was thus responsible for her emotional injury, it being reasonably foreseeable that she would be greatly distressed if a family member were killed in an accident involving her car.
The complaint also made claims on behalf of Yan’s parents and her sister’s estate. Those claims were not affected by Friday’s ruling.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Kevin McKenney sustained BMW’s demurrer, ruling that “no duty extends from defendant....to plaintiff...for emotional distress in any vehicular accident.”
Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed.
‘Direct Victim’ Claim
Bamattre-Manoukian explained that under California law, a plaintiff may recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress only as the “direct victim” of the defendant’s breach of duty or as a “bystander” who witnesses an event that injures a family member and is caused by the defendant’s negligence.
The justice rejected Yan’s contention that as the purchaser/owner of the vehicle, she was a direct victim of the alleged negligence. “We are not persuaded that BMW’s relationship with Yan as the purchaser of a BMW automobile is sufficient to give rise to a duty of care to Yan under the facts of this case....,” the jurist wrote.
The manufacturer’s duty of reasonable care in the design of its product, Bamattre-Manoukian went on to explain, is owed to those “using the vehicle as intended, such as the driver and passengers, or to other persons within the range of potential danger from the vehicle.”
Lending the vehicle to a family member, the justice said, is not the type of use that will place the owner within the zone of protection under products liability law, nor does ownership create a “special relationship” between the manufacturer and the consumer that will result in a heightened duty.
The justice also rejected the contention that the duty asserted by the plaintiff should be found to exist as a matter of public policy.
She cited Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, which elucidated the factors that must be looked at to determine whether a duty will be imposed as a matter of public policy—foreseeability of harm, degree of certainty of injury, closeness of causal connection between the injury and the breach of alleged duty, the moral blameworthiness of the conduct, the extent to which imposition of duty would prevent future harm, the burden on the defendant and the community if the duty , and the cost and availability of insurance.
While the court must accept as true for purposes of demurrer the claims that BMW was responsible for her sister’s death and that Yan suffered foreseeable emotional distress as a result, that is not enough to find a duty, the justice said.
Bamattre-Manoukian noted that the plaintiff alleges only a negligent defect in design and does not accuse BMW of willful or reckless misconduct, such as selling a vehicle with no head protection or intentionally designing a system it knew to be faulty.
Extending the scope of responsibility beyond liability to persons actually injured and those who witness injuries to family members, the justice added, would increase insurance costs without making products any safer.
The case is Yan Gu v. BMW of North America, LLC, 05 S.O.S. 4192.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company