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Cantrell v. Toyota Motor Corp.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

May 30, 2018



          Denney & Barrett, P.C., by: Richard L. Denney; and McCutchen & Sexton - The Law Firm, by: Sam Sexton III, for appellant.

          Bowman and Brooke LLP, by: Wendy F. Lumish, pro hac vice; and Wright Lindsey & Jennings LLP, by: Edwin L. Lowther and Troy A. Price, for appellees.

          N. MARK KLAPPENBACH, Judge

         The appellant, Connie Cantrell, suffered severe injuries when she was ejected from her 2000 Toyota Tundra during a rollover accident. She filed a products-liability action against the appellees, Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. ("Toyota"), alleging that Toyota was strictly liable for her injuries because defective plastic springs in her seat-belt buckle caused the buckle to "inertially unlatch" in reaction to the gravitational forces of the accident. Toyota disputed that Cantrell was wearing her seat belt and argued that even if she had been, the seat-belt buckle was not defective. A Pulaski County jury found that the Tundra's seat-belt buckle was not supplied in a defective condition that rendered it unreasonably dangerous, and the circuit court entered a judgment in favor of Toyota.

         Cantrell now appeals the judgment, assigning error to several of the circuit court's evidentiary rulings, as well as to the circuit court's rulings on hers and Toyota's proffered jury instructions regarding spoliation. Toyota cross-appeals, alleging that the circuit court erred by denying its motion for a directed verdict. Because we agree that the circuit court abused its discretion when it submitted an instruction based on AMI Civ. 106 to the jury, we reverse the judgment and remand for a new trial. Because we also conclude that the circuit court did not err by denying Toyota's motion for a directed verdict, we affirm the cross-appeal.[1]

         I. Factual Background

         Cantrell's injuries resulted from a single-car rollover accident that occurred in an eastbound lane of Interstate 630 in Little Rock on December 27, 2006. A truck driver who witnessed the accident testified that he saw Cantrell attempt to merge into the middle lane from the left side of the highway. A car was already in the middle lane when Cantrell attempted to merge, causing her to abruptly steer her Tundra back into the left lane. Cantrell appeared to lose control as she did so, and the truck collided with the median barrier of the highway. Cantrell's truck started to roll when it hit the barrier, and according to the witness, Cantrell was ejected from the vehicle after the first roll.

         Cantrell's expert in accident reconstruction, Bruce Enz, agreed that the Tundra's collision with the median barrier induced a "passenger-side-leading roll." The vehicle rolled twice, ejecting Cantrell in the latter part of the roll sequence. The front wheel of the Tundra fell off in the collision, and the vehicle's subsequent contact with the ground produced approximately "8 to 12 g's of force" at the Tundra's center of gravity. The gravitational forces were carried through the Tundra's suspension system and frame, eventually reaching the seat-belt restraint system. While Mr. Enz could not determine the amount of gravitational force absorbed by the restraint system, he opined, based on the bent appearance of the seat-belt stalk and the lack of damage to other interior structures in the passenger compartment, that Cantrell had been wearing her seat belt during the accident. Mr. Enz also opined that a circular breakage pattern on the windshield did not indicate that Cantrell failed to use her seat belt, as Toyota alleged.

         Cantrell offered her inertial-unlatching theory principally through the testimony of Stephen Syson, a former design engineer at General Motors. Mr. Syson testified that the driver's seat belt in Cantrell's Tundra had an end-release buckle that was manufactured by QSS, a Canadian company. The driver unlatches the buckle with a press of a button that is supported by plastic "Delrin" springs that are manufactured by DuPont. Mr. Syson testified that the Delrin spring was prone to sag or break with repeated use, and DuPont had long warned that the Delrin spring should not be used in any application that would subject it to continuous force. According to Mr. Syson, the button and supporting springs in the QSS buckle are subjected to continuous force even when the latch is not inserted in the buckle.

         Mr. Syson also testified that Toyota failed to adequately test the buckle while the Tundra was in preproduction, and his own testing of the QSS buckle-including dropping it from a height of one meter-indicated that it would inertially unlatch when subjected to forces that were less than those present in the rollover of Cantrell's Tundra. According to Mr. Syson, the Tundra dropped more than a meter after losing its right front wheel, causing approximately 86 to 100 g's of vertical force to unlatch Cantrell's seat belt. Finally, Mr. Syson testified that his inspection of the seat belt and buckle from Cantrell's Tundra, as well as the interior of the passenger compartment, indicated that she regularly wore her seat belt and that she was wearing it when the accident occurred.

         Cantrell also introduced the testimony of Dr. Joseph Burton, who testified that his inspection of the Tundra's windshield did not reveal any indication that Cantrell's head hit the windshield, as Toyota alleged. He also opined that various injuries that she suffered during the accident, including a crack in her breastbone and a hematoma on her left adrenal gland, were consistent with seat-belt use.

         Toyota introduced the testimony of Dr. William Van Arsdell, who also conducted an inspection of Cantrell's Tundra and opined, from the absence of "load marks" on the seat belt, that Cantrell was not actually wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident. Dr. Van Arsdell also explained that the only function of the Delrin spring is to return the buckle's end-release button to its original position, and contrary to Dr. Syson's testimony, the springs are under load only when the button on the buckle is depressed. His inspection of the buckle from Cantrell's Toyota indicated that the spring was intact. The doctor also explained that the seat belt is unlikely to inertially unlatch during a rollover accident because the load resulting from the belt's restraint of the occupant makes it harder to release the belt, and he declared that the inertial-unlatching theory involving the end-release buckle is not generally accepted in mainstream science.

         Toyota also introduced the testimony of Dr. Michael Carhart, who disagreed with Dr. Burton's assessment that the damage to the Tundra's windshield was not a "head strike" indicating that Cantrell was not wearing her seat belt. Using Dr. Burton's photographs of the windshield after the accident, Dr. Carhart testified that the pattern consisted of concentric, radial cracks with a pulverized-glass center that was indicative of a head strike. Dr. Carhart was unable to personally inspect the windshield in the same condition that Dr. Burton did, however, because he found it "in the rear of [the Tundra] folded and balled up" when he subsequently inspected the Tundra in 2010.

         Finally, Toyota introduced the testimony of Motori Shibata, a safety engineer at Toyota. Like Dr. Van Arsdell, Mr. Shibata explained that the function of the Delrin spring is simply to return the push button on the end-release buckle, and it does not have any function in keeping the seat belt latched. The components responsible for keeping the seat belt latched are made of steel. Mr. Shibata further testified that Toyota used several methods to thoroughly test the seat belt in the 2000 Tundra, including a series of voluntary rollover tests. Mr. Shibata explained that while the rollover tests had been filmed at the time Toyota conducted them, Toyota judged that it was unnecessary to keep the film because (1) none of the components failed, (2) Toyota's engineers could understand the results from the still photographs and the data, and (3) the federal government did not require the tests.

         As indicated above, the jury ultimately found for Toyota, responding "No" to jury interrogatory No. 1, asking whether the jury found "from a preponderance of the evidence that the driver's seat-belt buckle in the 2000 Toyota Tundra manufactured, assembled, sold, or distributed by Toyota was in a defective condition that rendered it unreasonably dangerous." The circuit court entered the judgment on September 26, 2016.

         II. Direct Appeal

         A. AMI Civ. 106

         At the close of the evidence, both parties proffered jury instructions according to AMI Civ. 106, allowing juries to draw adverse inferences from parties' intentional destruction or suppression of evidence (otherwise known as spoliation). Cantrell proffered the instruction based on Mr. Shibata's testimony that Toyota destroyed the video recordings of the rollover testing that it performed while the 2000 Tundra was in preproduction, arguing that good engineering practice and Toyota's alleged awareness of unrelated claims involving the QSS buckle required Toyota to retain the recordings. Toyota, on the other hand, proffered the instruction based on the deterioration of the windshield while it was in Cantrell's custody. According to Toyota, the windshield was material to the issue of whether Cantrell had been wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident, and Cantrell and her counsel failed to maintain it in a condition that allowed a meaningful inspection by Toyota's expert, Dr. Carhart.

         The circuit court denied Cantrell's requested instruction, finding that there was no evidence that Toyota had destroyed the recordings with any knowledge of a pending or potential claim. The circuit court granted Toyota's request to instruct the jury according to AMI Civ. 106, however, rejecting Cantrell's argument that there was no evidence that she intentionally destroyed the windshield. The jury was instructed as follows:

If you find that a party intentionally destroyed, discarded or lost the 2000 Toyota Tundra or any component of the 2000 Toyota Tundra with knowledge that it may be material to a potential claim, you may draw the inference that an examination of it would have been unfavorable to that party's claim. When I use the term "material" I mean evidence that could be a substantial factor in evaluating the merit of a claim or defense in this case.

         Cantrell now appeals both rulings. Because the circuit court abused its discretion when it granted Toyota's request for a spoliation instruction, we reverse the judgment and remand the case for a new trial.

         This court will not reverse a circuit court's decision to give or reject an instruction unless the court abused its discretion. Bunn Builders, Inc. v. Womack, 2011 Ark. 231, at 5. "An abuse of discretion occurs when the circuit court acts improvidently, or thoughtlessly, [or] without due consideration." Milner v. Luttrell, 2011 Ark.App. 297, at 3, 384 S.W.3d 1, 3. "[A] party is entitled to a jury instruction when it is a correct statement of the law and when there is some basis in the evidence to support giving the instruction." Bunn Builders, Inc., 2011 Ark.App. 231, at 5. While the supreme court has not required circuit courts to make specific findings of bad faith on the part of spoliators before submitting spoliation instructions to juries, see id. at 11, it has nonetheless defined spoliation as "the intentional destruction of evidence, " Id. at 7, and has required circuit courts to find some evidence of intentional conduct before instructing juries on spoliation of evidence. Id. at 11; see also Rodgers v. CWR Constr., Inc., 343 Ark. 126, 133, 33 S.W.3d 506, 511 (2000) (holding that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion by declining to give the instruction when there was no indication that the evidence was intentionally lost or destroyed); see also Tomlin v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 81 Ark.App. 198, 209, 100 S.W.3d 57, 64 (2003) (same).

         In this case, there was no evidence that Cantrell or her counsel gave an order to destroy the windshield or that she engaged in any intentional conduct that warranted the instruction. The evidence showed, at most, that the windshield fell away from the truck's frame-and that someone placed the windshield in the bed of the truck-while the truck was in Cantrell's custody. Because the circuit court did not make any finding of intentional conduct that supported giving the instruction, and there is no evidence of intent that would permit such a finding, the circuit ...

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