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Dortch v. Doe

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

April 6, 2017


         Appealed from the Twenty-Third Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Ascension State of Louisiana Docket Number 107, 095 Honorable Katherine Tess Stromberg, Judge

          Steven E. Adams Baton Rouge, LA Counsel for Plaintiff/Appellant Joseph M. Dortch

          Gary G. Hebert Eugene Terk Charles S. Smith New Orleans, LA Counsel for Defendant/ Appellee FCA U.S. LLC (formerly known as Chrysler Group, LLC)


          GUIDRY, J.

         In this products liability action, the plaintiff appeals the dismissal of his claims against an automobile manufacturer by summary judgment. For the following reasons, we affirm.


         In the summer of 2012, Joseph M. Dortch drove his 2012 Jeep Cherokee off the road as he was traveling west on a roadway in Ascension Parish. According to Mr. Dortch, an unknown driver crossed the center line of the two-lane highway, causing him to drive off the roadway into an adjacent ditch. Mr. Dortch sustained several injuries and was transported from the accident scene by ambulance. Following the accident, Mr. Dortch filed a claim with his automobile liability insurer, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company.[1] The vehicle was declared a total loss by State Farm, which subsequently sold the vehicle for salvage in August 2012.

         On May 29, 2013, Mr. Dortch filed a petition for damages against Jane Doe, the unknown driver of a small, white automobile that Mr. Dortch alleged swerved into his lane of travel and forced him to drive off the road. Mr. Dortch also named Chrysler Group, LLC as a defendant in the petition, alleging that the failure of any of the front or side airbags to deploy was an additional proximate and contributing cause of the injuries he sustained in the accident. Mr. Dortch therefore claimed that the airbags in his vehicle were unreasonably dangerous. Chrysler Group, LLC generally denied any liability in answer to Mr. Dortch's petition.

         On February 17, 2016, FCA U.S. LLC, which was formerly the Chrysler Group, LLC, filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that Mr. Dortch had insufficient evidence to carry his burden of proof at trial, because he no longer possessed the 2012 Jeep Cherokee nor any parts of the vehicle, including the allegedly defective airbag system. In support of its motion for summary judgment, FCA U.S. LLC pointed out that Mr. Dortch had raised three of the four exclusive, theories of recovery provided under the Louisiana Products Liability Act (LPLA), La. R.S. 9:2800.51-2800.60. See La. R.S. 9:2800.52.[2] Relative to the three theories raised, FCA U.S. LLC pointed out the following:

As to his first theory, defective construction or composition, plaintiff did not show any deviation from any specifications or performance standards for the vehicle or from otherwise identical vehicles by the same manufacturer, a required element of proof under the LPLA. Second, regarding design defect, he failed to identify any alternative designs that he contends could have prevented his injury, also as required under the LPLA. Third, as to inadequate warnings, plaintiff did not identify a specific warning he contends is inadequate or explain the manner in which the airbag system was unreasonably dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by an ordinary user of the product, all required elements of a warnings claim under the LPLA.
Indeed, plaintiff has not been able to produce the most important piece of evidence in an automotive products liability case: the subject vehicle.

         FCA U.S. LLC conceded that the airbags did not deploy in Mr. Dortch's accident; nevertheless, it argued "plaintiff has no evidence that the subject vehicle's airbags should have deployed in the accident, that the nondeployment was due to a product defect, or that the so-called product defect caused his injuries." Further, FCA U.S. LLC argued that plaintiff would be unable to meet his burden of proving that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied.

         Mr. Dortch filed an opposition to the motion for summary judgment asserting a list of five facts that he contended to be genuinely disputed and offering photographs and an inspection report produced by State Farm and his own affidavit as evidence of the extent of the damage sustained by the subject vehicle and of the fact that the airbags in the subject vehicle did not deploy. In addition to citing the law on res ipsa loquitur, Mr. Dortch further argued that under the current version of La. C.C.P. art. 966, ...

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