In product litigation over a plane crash, a Florida appeals court has ordered a new trial because of the improper admission of evidence of “similar incidents.” Godfrey v. Precision Airmotive Corp., No. 5D07-4389 (Fla. 5th Dist. Ct. App., 9/10/10).
Plaintiffs’ suit alleged that the airplane they were in crashed as the result of a faulty Precision Airmotive Co. MA-3SPA carburetor. Plaintiffs were the flight instructor and student, flying a 1973 Cessna 150. Its engine had been overhauled three times. The most recent overhaul included installation of a new carburetor a few months before the accident. Plaintiffs alleged design and manufacturing defects that allegedly either allowed fuel to leak or allowed too much fuel into the carburetor. A jury had awarded approximately $55 million.
Defendants sought a new trial, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of other supposedly similar incidents at trial. The trial court agreed in post-trial motions, and both sides appealed. Readers know that such evidence is often used to attempt to prove that the defendant was on notice of the risk or hazard, and/or that the defect was the factual cause of the accident. Here, the documents were purportedly offered solely to show that defendant was on notice of the carburetor defect that allegedly caused its engine to fail. Generally, in this context, evidence of the occurrence or non-occurrence of prior accidents is admissible only if it pertains to the use of the same type of appliance or equipment under substantially similar conditions. Florida law, as is typical, places the burden on the proponent of this type of evidence to demonstrate “substantial similarity” before the evidence can be admitted.
The problem here was that most of the “similar” incidents involved a different, larger aircraft engine built by a competing manufacturer and using a different carburetor than the one defendant Teledyne certified for use with the engine at issue in this case. Basically, the plaintiffs relied upon testimony from one of their experts, who opined that the engine at issue in this case was similar to the other engines, and offered a long list of carburetors that he opined to be similar in that they all share the defects alleged to exist in the carburetor that allegedly contributed to the engine failure in this case.
The DCA agreed with defendant Teledyne that the trial court committed reversible error by allowing the plaintiffs to introduce this evidence of more than 100 problem occurrences involving other aircraft engines without a sufficient showing that the other incidents were caused by defects substantially similar to the defect that the plaintiffs alleged.
The different engines was not a trivial factor. But even if all of the accidents had involved the same Teledyne engine, that showing, alone, would not have been sufficient to secure admission of evidence regarding all of the other accidents. For example, said the court, one of the effects of the defects alleged by the plaintiffs was a build-up of carbon in the engine exhaust valve that can
interfere with the engine’s operation and, ultimately, cause the engine to fail. But the plaintiffs’ expert conceded that, among other things, failing to change the engine oil when specified can cause this exact same condition. Since all that was known about some of the supposedly similar accidents is that they involved engines with carbon build-up, it was impossible to say they were similar — because there was no way of knowing whether the build-up was caused by the same condition alleged as a defect in this case. Any accident caused by a failure to change an engine’s oil when required would not have put Teledyne on notice of the defects alleged in this case.
Given the volume of other accident evidence introduced in this case without a sufficient similarity showing, the court of appeals could not conclude that the error in admitting this evidence was harmless. Accordingly, a new trial was indeed warranted.
Interestingly, the dissent suggested that a different (easier) standard should apply when plaintiffs are trying to show the defendant was on notice, as opposed to trying to prove the existence of a dangerous condition or other usage of similar accidents.