What happens when a victim of a car accident suffers a more serious injury because the airbag did not deploy or the vehicle was otherwise defective?
That is the question that the Iowa Supreme Court was asked to decide in the case of Jahn v. Hyundai Motor Company, decided this morning.
While the path by which the Iowa Supreme Court answered the question is full of complex legal analysis and considerations, the answer is quite simple.
If the enhanced injury can sufficiently be separated and attributed to each particular defendant (if it is "divisible") than the manufacturer of the vehicle is only liable for the amount of damages resulting from the enhanced injury proximately caused by the vehicle defect. If the enhanced injury is not divisible but the plaintiff can establish that an enhanced injury did indeed occur due to a design defect, it is for the jury to apportion fault between the applicable defendants. If one defendant is determined to be more than 50% at fault than that defendant will be considered jointly and severally liable for the full extent of the damages.
The true meaning of this case is best described by way of an example.
Assume that a plaintiff is injured through no fault of his own, in a motor vehicle accident wherein the air bag did not deploy. The plaintiff sues both the defendant driver and the manufacturer of the vehicle he was driving. The accident is such that had the airbags been functioning properly they would have deployed and the plaintiff would not have been as severely injured. It cannot be particularly established how much more damage was caused by failure of the airbag to deploy but it is proven that the plaintiff suffered a more severe injury as a result. The entire issue of liability and damages goes to the jury and it is the jury's duty to apportion the percentage of fault attributable to each particular defendant.
In these situations each defendant will be responsible and liable to pay for the percentage of damages attributed to that particular defendant. However, if one defendant is found to be more than 50% at fault, they can be held responsible for the full amount of damages in the event that the other defendant has already settled or is unable to pay their share. This is most important in serious injury accidents where one defendant has settled already and the case proceeds to trial against the one single defendant.
If, for example, the plaintiff settles with the at fault defendant who was driving the other vehicle, say for the insurance policy limits of $100,000, but the total amount of damages are determined to be $1 Million dollars, if the manufacturer of the defective vehicle is determined to be more than 50% at fault, they will be responsible for the remaining $900,000.00. If they were less than 50% at fault they would simply have to pay their percentage of the damages.
This ruling is sensible and follows the majority of most other States and adopts the Restatement 2nd of Torts position on this issue. It ensures that plaintiffs will be fully compensated and fault will be fairly attributed to each potential responsible party.
Helpful Relative Information: Opinion: http://www.iowacourts.gov/Supreme_Court/Recent_Opinions/20091009/07-1595.pdf Damages Who can sue for injuries? What can be recovered in a lawsuit? Insurance Company Claims