Many vehicle manufacturers now produce bare, multipurpose vehicle chassis that can be converted into a variety of uses by adding certain accessories. Oftentimes in product liability lawsuits involving these ever-popular “incomplete vehicles,” the plaintiff sues not only the manufacturer of the incomplete vehicle, but also the manufacturer of the aftermarket body integrated onto it, as the plaintiff’s bar is looking for ways to expand liability to more defendants when such vehicles are involved in an accident.
In the majority of jurisdictions, courts have reasoned that – for cases involving an incomplete vehicle – the framework for liability is akin to the general “component-parts manufacturer” analysis. While it is difficult to conceptualize that the incomplete vehicle sold by the original manufacturer is a “component,” the vehicle often has multiple uses and occasionally the original manufacturer does not know the final configuration of the body that will be incorporated on it. Thus, all counsel practicing in this area – especially those representing incomplete vehicle designers, manufacturers and sellers – should be aware of the wide variance in the product liability laws of individual jurisdictions concerning this emerging and largely undeveloped area of the law.
The RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF TORTS: Products Liability § 5 (1998) is the constant source of authority relied on by reviewing courts addressing these issues and generally provides that a component seller only has a “…duty to supply reasonable instructions and warnings to the component buyer…” and this duty only extends to “…immediate buyers and not to … users of integrated final products.” Id. cmt. b, Reporters’ Note.
Additionally, the landmark case of Verge v. Ford Motor Co. provides an acute analysis of incomplete vehicle liability issues. See, 581 F.2d 384 (3d Cir. 1978). Relying on the RESTATEMENT, the court identified the following factors that should be used to determine whether the incomplete vehicle manufacturer should be liable where subsequent alterations (i.e., a finished body) are affixed to the chassis: (1) the general trade custom—at what stage would the defect normally be cured; (2) relative expertise of the parties, including who is best acquainted with the design problems of the product as modified; and (3) practical considerations, such as the party in the better position to remedy or warn of the defect. Id. In applying these factors, the Verge court determined that an incomplete vehicle itself was not defective and the manufacturer was not liable for the failure to incorporate a design feature (a backup alarm) on the finished vehicle in question. Id.
Many federal and state courts have followed this reasoning and analysis, which appears to be the governing authority in evaluating liability to the incomplete vehicle manufacturer. See, Boyle v. Ford Motor Co., 942 A.2d 850 (N.J. Super. Mar. 18, 2008); See also, Elliott v. Century Chevrolet Co., 597 S.W.2d 563, 563 (Tex. Civ. App.—Fort Worth 1980, writ ref’d n.r.e.); Trevino v. Yamaha Motor Corp., 882 F.2d 182 (5th Cir. 1989), abrogated on other grounds by Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1076 n. 14 (5th Cir. 1994). The rationale behind this authority is clear: the incomplete vehicle manufacturer is at times not in a position to assess all of the potential uses and dangers for the relevant end-product and they should only be responsible if the unaltered, incomplete vehicle is defective itself.