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Rossell v. Volkswagen of America

Arizona Supreme Court
709 P.2d 517 (1985)


Facts

Late one evening, Phyllis Rossell (plaintiff) fell asleep at the wheel of her 1958 Volkswagen Beetle and the car began to drift off the road. The car hit a road sign jolting Rossell awake. Rossell attempted to steer the vehicle back onto the roadway, but she overcompensated and jerked the wheel hard. The vehicle skidded, overturned, and landed on its roof at the bottom of a cement culvert. Rossell’s eleven-month-old daughter, Julie, was in the front passenger seat. The force of the accident dislodged and fractured the battery which was located inside the passenger compartment. Subsequently, the broken battery slowly dripped sulfuric acid on Julie causing her to suffer serious burns. Rossell, on behalf of Julie, filed suit against Volkswagen of America (Volkswagen) (defendant) alleging the company negligently designed the Beetle’s battery system. At trial, Rossell argued that the placement of the battery within the passenger compartment created an unreasonable risk of harm and that alternative designs for placement of the battery were available and feasible. In support of her claim, Rossell provided two expert witnesses who testified that car manufacturers did not place batteries in the passenger compartment. Volkswagen claimed that Rossell failed to make out a prima facie case because she had failed to produce expert testimony to substantiate that Volkswagen deviated what a reasonable automobile designer or manufacturer would have done in 1958 when the Beetle was made. The jury held for Rossell and awarded her $1.5 million in damages. The trial court denied Volkswagen’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Volkswagen appealed. The court of appeals reversed and concluded that Rossell had failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence and that the trial judge erred in denying Volkswagen’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The Arizona Supreme Court granted certiorari to review.

Rule of Law

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Issue

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Holding and Reasoning (Feldman, J.)

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  • A “yes” or “no” answer to the question framed in the issue section;
  • A summary of the majority or plurality opinion, using the CREAC method; and
  • The procedural disposition (e.g. reversed and remanded, affirmed, etc.).

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