New liability trial ordered in fatal concrete-tossing case

Published: Saturday, Mar. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 31, 2013 - 1:45 pm

When a teenager fatally injured a truck driver by slinging a chunk of concrete through the truck's windshield, that didn't get the windshield's manufacturer off the hook for money damages to compensate the driver's widow, a divided state appellate panel in Sacramento ruled Friday.

Regardless of the way it got to the windshield, which was manufactured in accord with federal motor safety standards, the 2 1/2-pound piece of concrete was a foreseeable road hazard that the windshield should have been able to withstand, a split three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal concluded.

Legal responsibility for a defective design "does not depend on whether the projectile falls from a rock outcropping, passing gravel truck, or the hands of a juvenile delinquent," the panel decided.

"To deny recovery to an injured user of an otherwise defective product simply because a common road hazard was caused by criminal behavior would negate the manufacturer's duty to design products to account for reasonably foreseeable risks," Associate Justice Andrea Lynn Hoch wrote in a 38-page opinion joined by Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye.

The opinion is binding in all of California's appellate districts, and will remain so unless another district court or the state Supreme Court decides differently.

"We are off into an area of how criminal behavior affects product liability that I think only the California Supreme Court can resolve," Jay-Allen Eisen, the truck manufacturer's appellate attorney, said late Friday. "It will be up to the client whether we ask for that review."

The incident giving rise to the lawsuit occurred in the early hours of Dec. 4, 1997. Joshua Daniel, then 15, was on top of a canal levee throwing riprap – loose pieces of concrete and asphalt on the levee – and had already hit a few vehicles traveling on Interstate 5, which goes over the canal near Stockton.

The next target was a Navistar big rig driven by William F. Collins. The teen pitched the concrete chunk that penetrated the windshield and struck Collins in the forehead, causing severe brain injuries. Collins lost control of the truck and it crashed into a sound wall.

Daniel pleaded guilty to three counts of assault with a deadly weapon or with force likely to cause great bodily injury. He was given a 12-year sentence.

Collins, who died later from his injuries, and wife Barbara Collins sued manufacturer Navistar Inc. (formerly International Truck and Engine Corp.), claiming product liability and alleging the truck's windshield was defective.

Hoch and Raye ruled that the trial judge committed prejudicial error when she fashioned a verdict form on which the jury's answer to the first question "prevented it from considering the question of whether the truck's windshield design was a substantial cause" of Collins' injuries.

"The jury clearly relied on misleading and incorrect instructions (on the law from the trial judge) concerning the effect of third-party criminal conduct on the standard of reasonable foreseeability for strict products liability claims," the two justices said. "Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial."

In a brief concurrence and dissent, Associate Justice Elena J. Duarte wrote that she agreed the case should be sent back for a retrial because the trial judge disallowed part of Barbara Collins' evidence on an alternative material for windshields, while evidence on alternative windshields made at a more slanting angle meant to deflect road debris was allowed.

But, she said, the instructional error cited by the majority is harmless "due to the paucity of admissible evidence introduced by (Barbara Collins) on the issue of the foreseeability of large rocks hitting truck windshields and Navistar's corresponding duty to design for such occurrences."

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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