Jeremy Taylor, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently held that evidence of other incidents involving unintended acceleration of the defendant automobile manufacturer’s vehicles was admissible in a products liability action brought by family members of persons killed in an unintended acceleration event. See Adams v. Toyota Motor Corp., 867 F.3d 903 (8th Cir. 2017).
The driver of a 1996 Toyota Camry alleged that he was unable to stop his vehicle after exiting an interstate highway, despite attempts to apply the brakes. While traveling at approximately 75 miles per hour, his vehicle collided with a car stopped at a red light. There were numerous fatalities and other severe injuries from the incident.
The plaintiffs sought to introduce evidence of other incidents involving unintended acceleration in the defendant’s vehicles. The manufacturer sought to exclude such evidence. The court began by noting that evidence of other similar incidents in a products liability action may be relevant to prove the manufacturer’s notice of the alleged defects, the manufacturer’s ability to correct known defects, the magnitude of the danger, the product’s lack of safety for its intended uses, or causation. The court cautioned that admitting other incident evidence in a products liability case carries the risk of raising extraneous controversial points, leading to a confusion of the issues, and presenting undue prejudice disproportionate to its usefulness.
The court stated that evidence of prior accidents is admissible in a products liability action only if the proponent of the evidence shows that the accidents occurred under circumstances substantially similar to those at issue in the case being adjudicated. The court observed, however, that other similar incidents need not occur in precisely the same manner as the accident at issue in order to qualify as being substantially similar for purposes of admissibility in a products liability action. According to the court, there are no hard and fast rules as to the degree of similarly required to make other similar incidents admissible. The focus must be on all the circumstances surrounding the evidence, and not necessarily on any specific similarity.
Applying these rules, the court concluded that evidence of similar incidents was admissible in the case at hand. The court noted that in each of the three other similar incidents, witnesses testified that they drove the same type of automobile and that their experiences were similar to those of the driver of the allegedly defective vehicle, in that their vehicles either accelerated or maintained their speed when the drivers removed their feet from the gas pedal, that the brakes were either ineffective or of little help in reducing the vehicles’ speed, that the problem occurred spontaneously and unpredictably, and that the witnesses were unable to regain control of their vehicles within 600 feet of first experiencing the acceleration.Adams provides a useful guide to what is necessary for the admission of evidence of similar incidents in products liability cases. This evidence was important in Adams in providing the jury with a basis, in addition to the expert and lay testimony, for finding that the alleged unintended acceleration actually occurred. Evidence of similar incidents can be a very useful tool for plaintiff’s counsel in a products liability case.