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Ducko v. Chrysler Motors Corp. - 433 Pa. Super. 47, 639 A.2d 1204 (1994)

Rule:

When advancing a theory of strict product liability, a plaintiff has the burden of showing that the product was defective, that the defect was the proximate cause of his or her injuries and that the defect existed at the time the product left the manufacturer. In certain cases of alleged manufacturing defects, however, the plaintiff need not present direct evidence of the defect. When proceeding on a malfunction theory, the plaintiff may present a case-in-chief evidencing the occurrence of a malfunction and eliminating abnormal use or reasonable, secondary causes for the malfunction. From this circumstantial evidence, a jury may be permitted to infer that the product was defective at the time of sale.

Facts:

In 1984, appellant plaintiffWilma Ducko was driving a newly purchased, 1985 Chrysler Fifth Avenue on the Atlantic City Expressway, in New Jersey, when the vehicle suddenly jerked to the right. Although she tried to straighten the course of her vehicle, she said, the steering felt as though it had locked. When she attempted to apply the brakes, they also failed to respond. The vehicle, which had been moving at a speed of 55 m.p.h., travelled across the highway, down an embankment and into a group of trees. Ducko received serious injuries, including a broken back, and the vehicle was totalled. Prior to the accident, the vehicle had been driven 1,655 miles; it had been purchased less than two months before. The road surface at the time of the accident was dry. The Duckos brought a strict product liability action against appellee defendant Chrysler for the injuries sustained. An expert employed by the plaintiffs found no specific defect in the vehicle. He testified that Mrs. Ducko's accident had been caused by a transient malfunction of the system providing power to the steering and brakes. Chrysler's expert, however, observed that both steering and brakes were operational, and he found no abnormalities in any of the car's systems. He said that at a speed of 55 m.p.h. even a temporary power failure would not have rendered the steering uncontrollable. He expressed the opinion that the accident was a result of operator error. The trial court granted Chrysler's motion for summary judgment. The Duckos appealed.

Issue:

Were the circumstances surrounding a malfunction of an automobile sufficient to establish prima facie the existence of a manufacturing defect, thus rendering summary judgment for defendant manufacturer improper?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed and remanded, holding that appellant plaintiffs Duckos established a prima facie case of a manufacturing defect. In so ruling, the appellate court reiterated that, when proceeding on a malfunction theory, a prima facie case could be made by circumstantial evidence showing the occurrence of a malfunction and eliminating abnormal use or reasonable, secondary causes of the malfunction. As such, appellants were not required to prove the specific defect in design or construction causing the malfunction. Thus, the testimony of Mrs. Ducko that, while she was driving, the vehicle suddenly jerked to the right, the steering locked, and the brakes failed to respond, was sufficient to overcome summary judgment.

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