United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division
JAMES E. OLIPHANT PLAINTIFF
FCA U.S. LLC, formerly known as Chrysler Group LLC DEFENDANT
MARSHALL JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
claims that his 2005 Dodge RAM pickup truck lost power in an
intersection while he was making a left turn, causing a wreck
in 2012. There was a problem in some trucks like his. In
2015, Chrysler issued a recall notice. It said:
has decided that a defect, which relates to motor vehicle
safety, exists in certain 2005 model year Dodge RAM
problem is ...
rear axle pinion nut on your truck may have been built
without an adhesive patch on the pinion nut threads. The lack
of this adhesive patch could allow the rear axle pinion nut
to loosen and/or the rear driveshaft to separate from the
rear axle. A loose pinion nut could cause the rear axle to
seize and a separated driveshaft could cause a loss of motive
power. Either situation could cause a crash without warning.
29-1 at 6. Also in 2015, Chrysler agreed to related
consent orders from the National Highway Safety
Administration. Among other violations, the company admitted
that it had" failed to timely notify vehicle owners of
the existence of a defect. . . ." Nq 37-1 at 5.
In this case, Oliphant claims that Chrysler negligently and
defectively designed his pickup, is strictly liable for
manufacturing a defective product, and failed to warn him
promptly about the defect involving the rear axle pinion nut.
He also pleads fraudulent concealment to avoid a limitations
bar. Chrysler seeks summary judgment, arguing mainly that
Oliphant has insufficient proof that his truck actually had a
defective part. St. Jude Medical, Inc. v. Lifecare
International, Inc., 250 F.3d 587, 595 (8th Cir. 2001).
Oliphant points to the recall notice, the consent orders, and
his affidavit, which (echoing the notice) says his pickup
lost power right before the wreck.
is the root issue. Oliphant's pickup was sold for salvage
after the wreck. He has no expert testimony about the pinion
nut on his pickup's rear axle. Chrysler offers an
affidavit from an in-house engineer familiar with this
mechanical problem. He says some, but not all, 2005 RAMs had
this defect. And "whether the rear axle pinion nut
loosened and either caused the rear axle to seize or the
driveshaft to separate can only be determined by a physical
inspection of the RAM." Nq 29-1 at 2. The
engineer also explains various ways that a vehicle could be
tested to figure things out. Neither he nor anyone has done
those inspections on Oliphant's pickup. No. one can do it
now because the vehicle no longer exists.
lack of expert testimony knocks a hole in his case. The
general rule is that a plaintiff must have this kind of proof
on product claims. Lakeview Country Club, Inc. v.
Superior Products, 325 Ark. 218, 223-24, 926 S.W.2d 428,
431 (1996); Yielding v. Chrysler Motor Co., Inc.,
301 Ark. 271, 274-76, 783 S.W.2d 353, 355-56 (1990).
There's a res ipsa loquitur-\ike exception: If
common experience teaches that no accident would have
happened absent some defect, then a plaintiff can get to the
jury without an expert. E.g., Higgins v. General Motors
Corporation, 287 Ark. 390, 392, 699 S.W.2d 741, 743
(1985). But this exception is narrow, and to take advantage
of it, Oliphant must produce solid evidence rebutting other
causes. Oliphant's affidavit about the wreck gains some
ground here. But he doesn't purport to be an engineer,
and similar testimony in the other Arkansas cases involving
vehicles and sudden accidents didn't suffice to create a
jury issue. Yielding, 301 Ark. at 274-76, 783 S.W.2d
at 355-56; Williams v. Smart Chevrolet Co., 292 Ark.
376, 380-82, 730 S.W.2d 479, 481-82 (1987); Higgins,
287 Ark. at 393, 699 S.W.2d at 743; Mixon v. Chrysler
Corporation, 281 Ark. 202, 205-06, 663 S.W.2d 713,
714-15 (1984). The recall notice and consent orders support
Oliphant's defect claims. All of this, though, does not
fill the hole. There's no evidence that every recalled
RAM had a defective rear axle pinion nut; there's no
evidence that most of them did. Taking the record, especially
the recall notice and consent orders, in the light most
favorable to Oliphant, the most that can be reasonably
concluded is that his pickup may have had a defective rear
axle pinion nut. Without vehicle-specific evidence that it
did, the jury would be left to guess between the possibility
that it did and the possibility that it didn't. Driver
error remains a possible explanation for the wreck, too.
E.g., Yielding, 301 Ark. at 275, 783 S.W.2d at 355.
A guess between possibilities can't support a verdict.
Mixon, 281 Ark. at 205, 663 S.W.2d at 714.
Oliphant's defective design/negligence and strict
liability claims therefore fail as a matter of law.
about his warnings claim? Chrysler had a duty to warn
Oliphant about foreseeable risks involving his pickup.
Ethyl Corporation v. Johnson, 345 Ark. 476, 481-84,
49 S.W.3d 644, 648-50 (2001). We know from the 2015 consent
order that the company had, by that point, failed to give its
consumers timely notice of the problem with some of these
trucks. Arkansas presumes that consumers heed clear warnings;
and there's no evidence that Oliphant would have ignored
one. Compare Bushong v. Gorman Co., 311 Ark. 228,
233-34, 843 S.W.2d 807, 810-11 (1992). Oliphant's truck
was a 2005 model. His wreck happened in 2012. The record is
unclear exactly when Chrysler had enough information to make
problems from the defect foreseeable, but it was some time
before the NATSA's 2015 consent order. For purposes of
the current motion, the Court assumes that Chrysler had a
duty to warn Oliphant about potential problems at some point
before his 2012 wreck. It didn't. The dispositive issue
thus becomes whether Chrysler's failure to warn was a
proximate cause of this wreck. Yielding, 301 Ark. at
274, 783 S.W.2d at 355. We're back to defect. Unless the
rear axle pinion nut on Oliphant's pickup was defective,
the lack of a warning wasn't a proximate cause of his
wreck. Causation is usually for the jury, but becomes a
question of law in certain circumstances. Lovell v.
Brock, 330 Ark. 206, 215, 952 S.W.2d 161, 166 (1997).
Without proof sufficient to support a verdict about a defect
in this pickup truck, Oliphant's no-warnings claim fails
for lack of proof about causation. Chandler v. Wal-Mart
Stores Inc., 2016 Ark.App. 372, at 12-13, 498 S.W.3d
motion for summary judgment, Nq 29, is granted.
Oliphant's motion, Nq 30, to strike the in-house
expert's second affdavit-which attached the police report
about Oliphant's wreck and his unsworn statement to his
insurance company's adjuster-is denied as moot. The Court
didn't consider the challenged affidavit or its
attachments in addressing Chrysler's motion for ...