Bonds v. Hyundai Motor Company et al
ORDER granting 39 Motion for Reconsideration; further ORDERED that the dfts on or before 10/15/2015, shall supplement their prior responses to discovery, as further set out in order. Signed by Honorable Judge Charles S. Coody on 9/16/2015. (wcl, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
WILLIE EARL BONDS, etc.,
HYUNDAI MOTOR COMPANY, et al.,
CASE NO. 1:14-cv-330-WHA
This is a diversity action involving an automobile accident in which a passenger
died as a result of his partial ejection from the vehicle. The various claims are premised
on a central allegation that the vehicle’s door locking and latch system was defective.
Count 1 is based on the Alabama Extended Manufacturer’s Liability Doctrine (AEMLD);
counts 2 through 4 are based on claims of negligent and wanton conduct under Alabama
It will come as no surprise that the parties had a discovery dispute which the court
first resolved by an April 8, 2015 order which partially granted the plaintiff’s motion to
compel. (doc. # 26) On June 26, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration of
that order. (doc. # 39) The defendants have filed a response, (doc. # 40) and the motion
for reconsideration is now properly before the court. Upon consideration of that motion,
ORDERED that the motion for reconsideration (doc. # 26) is GRANTED as set
The vehicle in question is a 1997 Hyundai Accent which uses in its rear doors a
tension rod assembly which connects to the door’s locking mechanism. The vehicle does
not have an automatic or central door locking system. The plaintiffs have grouped the
remaining discovery disputes into several categories, and the court will use those
categories for its discussion of the issues although not in the order as presented by the
But first, a few observations are in order. As all lawyers practicing in federal court
know, complaints are important. See e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). In this
case, the complaint alleges that the “door locking and latching system was defective in
that it allowed/caused the door to open in a foreseeable minor side impact.” (doc. # 1 at 5)
At that level of generality and given the complexity of modern vehicles, almost any defect
is conceivable. But as naturally happens in the development of this type of case, the
plaintiffs begin to define with more specificity the nature of the defect. Thus, by the time
the motion to compel was filed, the plaintiff identified the alleged defect more
specifically. This is how the plaintiffs describe the latch system.
The 1997 Hyundai Accent is outfitted with a door latch system that consists
of a metal rod connecting the interior/exterior door handles to the latch
mechanism. When the interior/exterior handle is pulled, the metal rod is
moved forward and the latch mechanism is pulled upward, releasing the
latch mechanism and allowing the door to open.
(doc. # 22 at 4)
The plaintiffs claim that during an impact the rod will bend, causing the door to
open. Thus, the specific defect identified is a rigid, metal rod which will deform on
impact causing a vehicle door to open. With that understanding, the court turns to the
specific remaining disputes.
I. Door Latch System Similarity
Following the conclusion of proceedings on the original motion to compel, the
court entered an order granting the motion to compel in part by requiring the defendants
file a response in writing to the question of whether Hyundai Motor
Company or Hyundai Motor America, Inc., investigated, tested or otherwise
explored the use of a cable door latching system instead of a rod based door
latching system in any vehicles built on the X3 platform. If so, then at the
same time, the defendants shall provide any documents that relate to the
investigation, testing or exploration of the use of cable door latching
systems in those vehicles built on the X3 platform.
The court limited the defendants’ response to the X3 platform because the court
agreed with the argument that other vehicles not built on that platform were not
substantially similar. The defendants relied on Baine v. General Motors Corp., 141
F.R.D. 328 (M.D. Ala. 1991), arguing that unlike in Baine this case involved “the entire
door locking and latching system–not a single component part.” (doc. # 40 at 4)
The court was in error in agreeing with the defendants that discovery should be
limited to the X3 platform. Even though the complaint spoke to a door locking and
latching system, it is now quite clear that the alleged defect is the use of a metal rod. And
just as in Baine where the defect was a pendulum, here the alleged defect is the rigid rod
which can bend on impact. The defendants have not shown that use of a rod which could
bend on impact thus causing a door to open would be different for other vehicle platforms
even if other components and configurations of a latching system were different. The
court recognizes that the defendants’ expert opined that other rod latch systems were not
similar because the components were not identical in dimensions, shape or configuration.
(doc. # 24-5) But those differences do not explain why the use of a rod is not sufficiently
similar to support discovery on other models.
II. Time Frame for Discovery1
Hyundai limited its responses to the time period 1995 to 1999 because those are
the years in which vehicles on the X3 platform were manufactured. However, Hyundai
also disclosed that it used a rod assembly door latch system in every vehicle it
manufactured from 1985 to 2006. (doc. # 24-5) The plaintiffs argue that the time for
discovery about other rod systems therefore should be from January 1, 1985 to December
31, 2002. This latter date is some six years after the date of the manufacture of the
specific vehicle involved in this lawsuit. The six year time frame is premised on Ex parte
Michelin North America, Inc., 161 So.3d 164, 168 (Ala. 2014), which the plaintiffs
characterize as “other design defect discovery disputes under Alabama law.” (doc. # 39 at
14) Michelin may stand for many propositions of law but a standard discovery time frame
Given the court’s original conclusion about the motion to compel, the court did not address this
issue in its first order.
is not one of them.
But that, of course, merely underscores the fact that in general the time frame for
allowing discovery must be determined on a case-by-case basis according to the general
parameters established in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under FED R. CIV. P.
26(b)(2)(C), “the court must limit the . . . extent of discovery otherwise allowed by these
rules or by local rule if it determines that:
the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely
benefit, considering the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, the
parties' resources, the importance of the issues at stake in the action, and the
importance of the discovery in resolving the issues.
FED R. CIV. P. 26 (b)(2)(C)(iii).2 A central issue in this case is defective design, and to
prove that a product is defective for purposes of the AEMLD, a plaintiff must prove that a
safer, practical, alternative design was available to the manufacturer at the time the
product was manufactured. See Bagley v. Mazda Motor Corp., 864 So.2d 301, 312 (Ala.
Thus, the court finds that permitting discovery for six years beyond that date on
which the vehicle at issue in this case is unwarranted. Those years cannot show that an
alternative design was available to Hyundai when the subject vehicle was manufactured,
and the burden of discovery for those years outweighs any benefit. Hyundai offered
Interestingly, effective December 1, 2015, these factors are moved to FED R. CIV. P. 26(b)(1)
and a new factor, “proportional to the needs of the case” is added at the beginning of the list. The
comments to the change in the rule make it clear that this new factor is an important consideration both
for the parties and the court. In any event, application of this factor will undoubtedly lead to some
interesting discovery disputes.
discovery for the X3 platform from 1995 to 1999. While some two years after the date of
the subject vehicle’s manufacture may be of limited relevance, the court will follow
Hyundai’s lead and use 1999 as the last year for which to permit discovery.
That does not answer the question of how long before 1999 discovery should be
required. The time frame should be reasonable and in light of the resources of Hyundai,
the amount in controversy and the importance of the issues, the court finds that a ten year
time frame is appropriate for discovery.
III. Alternative Design
To succeed on a defective design claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a safer,
practical, alternative design was available to the manufacturer at the time the product was
manufactured, the utility of which outweighed the utility of the design actually used. See
Beech v. Outboard Marine Corp., 584 So. 2d 447 (Ala. 1991). Generally, the plaintiffs
here seek discovery about other rod assembly designs, cable linkage designs and
automatic or central door locking systems. In response to the court’s first order
compelling discovery “Hyundai certified that it did not investigate, test or otherwise
explore the use of a cable door latching system instead of a rod based door latching
system in any vehicles built on the X3 platform from 1995 through 1999.” Hyundai also
certified that no vehicles on any platform used an automatic locking system during the
period 1995 through 1999. (doc. # 40 at 7) The defendants also disclosed that thirteen
vehicles used a central locking system from 1995 to 1999. Given the court’s earlier
conclusion about the platform restriction, the court will order additional discovery about
IV. Similar Incidents
The plaintiffs ask that the court order the defendants to produce information about
similar incidents occurring both before and after the manufacture of the subject vehicle.
The defendants have produced information about prior, similar incidents involving only
the X3 platform. As already explained the court has concluded that discovery should
encompass door locking and latching systems which utilize a rod, and discovery about
prior incidents in which a vehicle door opened during impact because the rod deformed
will be ordered.
This leaves the question of whether post-manufacture incidents should also be
discoverable. The plaintiffs argue that because they must prove that the design is
defective, post-manufacture incidents, while not relevant to put the defendants on notice
of a defect, are relevant to prove the existence of a defect. Under Alabama law, a
plaintiff cannot rely solely on the fact that an accident occurred to prove the existence of a
defect. Clayton v. LLB Timber Co., Inc., 70 So.3d 283, 287 (Ala. 2011). And, to prove
that a product is defective for purposes of the AEMLD, a plaintiff must prove that a safer,
practical, alternative design was available to the manufacturer at the time it manufactured
the product. General Motors Corp. v. Jernigan, 883 So.2d 646, 662 (Ala. 2003). Thus,
the question of whether a defect exists is not an isolated element of proof but is
contingent upon a number of other factors related to the existence of an alternative design
available at the time of manufacture. Thus, the court concludes that post-manufacture
incidents are not discoverable. Accordingly, it is further
ORDERED that the defendants on or before October 15, 2015, shall supplement
their prior responses to discovery with the following:
1. Information relating to the design, engineering and testing of door latch systems
using a rod on all Hyundai vehicles regardless of platform manufactured during the
period 1989 to 1999.
2. Information relating to the design, engineering and testing of door latch systems
using other designs such as, but not limited to, cable linkage systems on all Hyundai
vehicles regardless of platform manufactured during the period 1989 to 1999.
3. Information relating to the design, engineering and testing of central and
automatic door locking systems on all Hyundai vehicles regardless of platform
manufactured during the period 1989 to 1999.
4. Information about incidents occurring during the period 1989 to the date of the
manufacture of the subject vehicle involving Hyundai vehicles, regardless of platform,
with a rod based latch system in which a vehicle door opened upon impact.
Done this 16th day of September, 2015.
/s/Charles S. Coody
CHARLES S. COODY
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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