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Bavlsik v. General Motors, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 31, 2017

Michael Bavlsik; Kathleen Skelly Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
General Motors, LLC Defendant-Appellee Michael Bavlsik; Kathleen Skelly Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
General Motors, LLC Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: March 8, 2017

         Appeals from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before RILEY, [1] Chief Judge, GRUENDER, Circuit Judge, and GRITZNER, [2] District Judge.

          RILEY, CHIEF JUDGE.

         These appeals are driven, in large part, by the standards of review.

         About five years ago Michael Bavlsik was driving his 2003 GMC Savana van when he collided with a boat being towed by another vehicle. Bavlsik was wearing his seatbelt, but that did not prevent him from hitting his head on the roof when the van rolled over. As a result, Bavlsik sustained a cervical-spinal cord injury and is now a quadriplegic. Bavlsik and his wife, Kathleen Skelly, sued General Motors, the company that designed and manufactured the van, for: (1) strict liability, asserting the seatbelt system lacked three specific safety features; (2) negligent design, based on GM's failure to implement these safety features or conduct adequate testing on the van; and (3) failure to warn.

         After an eleven-day trial, the jury found GM negligent for failing to test the van and such negligence caused Bavlsik's injuries. The jury rejected all other claims and theories. Bavlsik was set to recover $1 million (all for past damages), until the trial court granted GM's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law (JML) and set aside the verdict. On Bavlsik's and Skelly's motion, the trial court also conditionally granted a new trial solely as to damages. Both decisions are before us now. Bavlsik and Skelly contend they presented sufficient evidence to support the verdict, therefore GM was not entitled to JML. GM disagrees, and argues that if a new trial is necessary, then the parties should also retry the liability issue. We reverse the grant of JML, and affirm the grant of a new trial on damages only. See 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (appellate jurisdiction).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Crash

         On July 7, 2012, Bavlsik was driving two of his sons and eight others home to St. Louis after spending a week at Boy Scout camp in northern Minnesota when he hit a boat and trailer being towed by a pickup truck. The initial collision did not cause any significant harm, but then Bavlsik's vehicle-a twelve-passenger 2003 GMC Savana van he had purchased nine years earlier-swerved and completed a three-quarters roll at a relatively low speed. Bavlsik was wearing his seatbelt, but still slid far enough out of his seat to hit the roof of the van with enough force to dislocate his neck and sever his spinal cord. No one else was seriously hurt.

         Today, Bavlsik is a quadriplegic. He has "no motor movement below [his] chest, " however he was able to regain partial function of his arms after a nerve transplant and considerable rehabilitation work. Bavlsik's limitations have had predictable effects on his life. Professionally, Bavlsik was able to resume his work as a doctor just a few months after the accident. Needless to say Bavlsik's medical practice has changed-he "see[s] less patients in the office" due to his problems getting around, he has "lost a lot of patients, " and he has to work harder to accomplish routine tasks. Personally, Bavlsik misses the way life was when he could hike, bike, swim, and maintain an active lifestyle with his family. Bavlsik also worries about what the future holds, both for himself and his family. According to Skelly, she shares many of these feelings and concerns. And financially, not only have Bavlsik's professional prospects been curtailed, but he will also need to pay for some form of care for the rest of his life.

         B. The Case

         Bavlsik and Skelly filed a products-liability suit against GM in the Eastern District of Missouri less than one year after the accident. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1) (diversity jurisdiction). The complaint included claims for strict liability, negligent design, and failure to warn. Bavlsik sought past and future damages for loss of income, pain and suffering, medical expenses, and punitive damages; Skelly sought additional damages for loss of consortium. Both sides consented to a magistrate judge presiding over the action. See id. § 636(c)(1) (magistrate jurisdiction).

         The case culminated in a multi-week jury trial in September 2015. The foundation of the plaintiffs' case-in-chief was crafted around four key facts: first, there was no pretensioner, a device that activates in the event of a crash and removes slack from the seatbelt; second, the van did not employ an all-belts-to-seat design, which (as the name implies) consists of attaching the seatbelt to the seat rather than the body of the vehicle; third, the seatbelt did not use a sliding-cinching latch plate, which limits how freely the latch moves on the webbing of the belt; fourth, the van's seatbelt system had not been tested to see how it would perform during a rollover accident.

         There was no dispute about whether these four facts were true. Rather the case hinged on the significance of these facts. Bavlsik's and Skelly's expert, Larry Sicher, testified that the lack of the three features he identified rendered the van's seatbelt system defective, testing would have revealed as much, and implementing any of these design alternatives would have prevented Bavlsik's injuries. Sicher's testimony was the primary way the plaintiffs tried to satisfy their burden for the factual questions facing the jury. On the strict liability claim, did the lack of the three proposed safety features mean the van was "in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous when put to a reasonably anticipated use?" On the negligence claim, did the absence of any of these features and the lack of testing mean GM breached a duty by designing the van as it did?[3] And for both claims, there was the issue of causation-would these features or some type of testing have prevented Bavlsik's injuries?

         When the plaintiffs rested their case on day six of trial, GM moved for JML. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). According to GM, there was insufficient proof "that any alternative design . . . would have made any difference, " and as for testing it was unclear "what the test should have been" or "in what way the information gathered from such a test should have been used." Bavlsik and Skelly countered, citing their expert's testimony about the effect the proposed features have on keeping passengers safely in their seats during a rollover. Bavlsik and Skelly also highlighted testimony about the "importance of testing" and posited that had there been adequate testing, "maybe [GM] could have considered some alternative-some of the many alternative designs that were offered into evidence in this case." The trial court orally denied JML, so GM proceeded with its case-in-chief. At the close of all evidence, GM renewed its motion for JML "for the same reasons previously stated, " plus its supposed "direct evidence that . . . none of the alternatives . . . are actually effective and that there is nothing feasible that could have been done that would have prevented the injury." Again, the trial court orally denied the motion.

         The trial court submitted the plaintiffs' claims on a general verdict form with special interrogatories that listed all of their theories within each claim (including lack of testing for negligent design). The jury returned a verdict after over four hours of deliberation, finding GM was negligent for not testing the van's seatbelt system, and that negligence directly caused Bavlsik's injuries. The jury found GM was not strictly liable or negligent for failing to implement any of the specific safety features Bavlsik and Skelly had proposed. With the verdict, Bavlsik was to recover $1 million-all for past damages, none for future damages-and Skelly was to recover nothing. GM did not object to the jury instructions, the verdict form, or the verdict itself.

         Both sides filed post-trial motions. Bavlsik and Skelly moved for a new trial only on the damages issue. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). GM renewed its motion for JML, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), and alternatively moved for a new trial only on the failure-to-test portion of the negligent-design claim, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). This time the trial court granted GM's request for JML, reasoning "[t]he jury's finding of no defect rendered the other finding of negligent failure to adequately test a legally insufficient basis for liability." From this, Bavlsik and Skelly appeal. In addition, the trial court conditionally granted Bavlsik and Skelly a new trial on damages only, because the jury's award was "shockingly inadequate." See Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(c)(1). From this, GM conditionally cross-appeals.

         II.DISCUS ...


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