Submitted: March 8, 2017
from United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Missouri - St. Louis
RILEY,  Chief Judge, GRUENDER, Circuit
Judge, and GRITZNER,  District Judge.
appeals are driven, in large part, by the standards of
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.
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).
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.
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
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).
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.
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? And for both claims, there was the issue
of causation-would these features or some type of testing
have prevented Bavlsik's injuries?
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.
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.
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.