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Whether a claim alleging defective design of an automobile is precluded on public policy grounds where intoxication was the cause of a fatal auto accident.


No. Where an automobile manufacturer's defective design leads to fatal injuries, the manufacturer's duty of care to the driver is breached regardless of the cause of the crash.


Plaintiff's husband was driving while intoxicated and crashed his Volkswagen Jetta into a steel utility pole. He died as a result of injuries sustained during the accident. Plaintiff alleged that a negligent design caused her husband's fatal injuries. Defendant, Volkswagen of America, Inc. ("Volkswagen"), asserted that public policy precluded Plaintiff's claim for damages stemming from a design defect because Decedent was intoxicated at the time of the accident. The Supreme Court granted Volkswagen's summary judgment motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the negligent manner in which Decedent operated his vehicle was the sole cause of the collision and his injuries. The Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court found that Volkswagen's alleged design defect, which, Plaintiff claimed, enhanced Decedent's injuries, breached Defendant's duty of care to Decedent regardless of the cause of the accident. Citing well-established principles of products liability law, the Court noted that Volkswagen had a duty to produce a product that did not unreasonably enhance or aggravate injuries. Plaintiff here contended that Decedent's intoxication caused the collision but that the design defects caused the fatal injuries. The Court found that in such an instance, a producer of a defectively designed automobile breaches its duty to the driver regardless of the cause of the crash. The Court rejected Defendant's defense, which cited precedent that a plaintiff may not recover for injuries that are a direct result of unlawful conduct, noting that this rule does not apply in every instance where the plaintiff's injuries occurred while engaged in illegal activity. Barker v. Kallash, 63 N.Y.2d 19, 25 (N.Y. 1984) (citing Humphrey v. State of New York, 60 N.Y.2d 742, 744 (N.Y. 1983)). The Court accordingly reversed the granting of Defendant's motion for summary judgment and remanded for trial.

Prepared by the liibulletin-ny Editorial Board.