Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, January 20, 2016


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C.A. Upholds Judgment for Toyota in Highway Accident

Panel Says Evidence of Industry Custom Was Properly Admitted Regarding Lack of Stability Control System




The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday upheld a judgment absolving Toyota Motor Corporation of liability for serious injuries sustained by a driver who lost control of his pickup truck while serving to avoid another vehicle on the Angeles Forest Highway in 2005.

Attorneys for William Jae Kim and his wife contended that he could not control the vehicle because it lacked a feature known as electronic stability control or vehicle stability control. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Raul Sahagun allowed Toyota to introduce evidence that no vehicle manufacturer offers ESC as standard equipment on pickup trucks.

Justice John Segal, writing for Div. Seven, rejected the plaintiff’s argument that evidence of industry custom should never be allowed in opposition to a claim of strict products liability. But he also rejected Toyota’s argument that such evidence should always be permitted.

There are cases favoring both positions, the justice acknowledged. But the best rule, he concluded, is one that occupies a “middle ground’—that such evidence may be admitted “depending on the nature of the evidence and the purpose for which the proponent seeks to introduce the evidence.”

Motions in Limine

In the Kim case, the plaintiffs offered several motions in limine, including one that would barred any evidence “comparing the Tundra to competitor’s vehicles and designs.” Had the motion been granted, it would have “effectively excluded all evidence of custom and practice in the pickup truck industry,” Segal noted, but Sahagun denied it.

He did, however, say he would consider a limiting instruction if the plaintiffs offered one at trial.

An expert testifying for the plaintiffs opined that ESC would have prevented the accident by causing the vehicle to brake and keeping it in alignment. Another expert said ESC was designed specifically to prevent accidents of the type experienced by Kim.

Toyota’s experts disputed the claim that ESC would have prevented the accident, saying Kim’s steering to the left—seeking to return to the asphalt after swerving, which he was unable to do because the truck turned too far left and his tires slipped, before he steered right again—would have caused him to lose control even with stability control.

The defense also noted that no one offered ESC as standard equipment and that the Toyota Tundra was the first pickup for which it was available as an option. This is common with regard to expensive emerging technologies, defense experts said.

The jury found the truck was not defective, and Sahagun denied the plaintiffs’ motion for new trial.

Approach Explained

Segal, in explaining the court’s middle-ground approach to evidence of industry custom, said the evidence should be admitted if relevant to the risk-benefit analysis that the California Supreme Court has approved in strict liability cases.

“To prove a design defect under the risk-benefit test, a plaintiff must present evidence sufficient to support a finding by the trier of fact that the design proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries,” the justice wrote. “If the plaintiff satisfies this burden, then the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that the product was not defective, i.e., that ‘the benefits of the challenged design outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such design.’” 

On the other hand, Segal wrote, “the trial court has discretion to exclude it if it is not relevant to the issues in the case, if under Evidence Code section 352 its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice or confusion of the issues, or if the evidence is otherwise inadmissible.”

In the present case, he concluded, the plaintiffs’ argument for a broad exclusion of industry custom was incorrect, and their counsel did not take the judge up on his offer to consider limiting instructions, so no abuse of discretion occurred and the judgment should be affirmed.

Ian Herzog, Thomas F. Yuhas and Evan D. Marshall represented the Kims on appeal. RoganLehrman’s Patrick Rogan and Daniel R. Villegas, along with Bingham McCutchen’s Robert A. Brundage and Nicolette L. Young, represented Toyota.

The case is Kim v. Toyota Motor Corporation, 16 S.O.S. 345.


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