The Florida Senate Votes to Limit Product Liability Suits Brought Under the Crashworthiness Doctrine

Contributed by Stephen Gibbons

Ten years ago, in D’Amario v. Ford Motor Co., 806. So. 2d 424 (Fla. 2001), the Florida Supreme Court addressed what is commonly referred to as the crashworthiness doctrine.  Cases premised on this doctrine – also known as “secondary collision” or “enhanced injury” cases – involve both  an initial accident and a secondary accident.  Id. at 426.  This secondary accident, which is the focus of a crashworthiness case, is generally alleged to have been caused by a defective condition created by a manufacturer that is unrelated to the cause of the initial accident, but causes additional and separate injuries beyond those suffered in the primary collision.  Id.

In D’Amario, the plaintiff was riding in a 1998 Ford Escort when it crashed into a tree.  After hitting the tree, the car burst into flames.  While the driver – who was intoxicated at the time – was killed, the plaintiff survived but suffered serious injuries.  Subsequent to the crash, the passenger’s mother sued on behalf of her son, alleging that the car’s relay switch failed to disengage the fuel pump on impact.  This, she alleged, caused the post-collision fire and the injuries to her son.  At trial, the jury was permitted to consider evidence of the driver’s negligence and thus, the issue of comparative fault.  In doing so, it found for the defendant car manufacturer.  Id. at 428.  On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court reversed.  That court held that while the principles of comparative fault may apply to the causes of the first collision, they do not apply in crashworthiness cases where the sole focus is on the secondary injury.  Id. at 441-42.

Last Wednesday, the Florida Senate took a major step towards abolishing the holding in D’Amario with Senate Bill 142.  That bill requires that in deciding cases brought under the crashworthiness doctrine, “the trier of fact shall consider the fault of all persons who contributed to the accident when apportioning fault between or among them.”  Accordingly, in these types of cases, judges and juries would be entitled to hear and consider evidence of fault relating to the cause of the initial accident when apportioning fault for injuries caused by a subsequent or secondary accident.

The bill will now move to the Florida House of Representatives, which is currently considering similar legislation.  We will keep you posted as this legislation moves along.  In the meantime, here is a link to Senate Bill 142 as well as a link to the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in D’Amario.