Appellate court rules trailer manufacturer not liable for side underride crash

August 29, 2018

Tyson Fisher


A trailer manufacturer is off the hook in a products-liability lawsuit alleging the company was responsible for a side underride crash that left a 19-year-old with severe brain damage. The plaintiffs argued that an alternative design called a “telescoping side guard” would have at least mitigated the injuries. The alternative design, however, does not exist.

On Aug. 23, the Sixth District U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a Western District of Kentucky U.S. District Court’s decision granting trailer manufacturer Great Dane summary judgement in a lawsuit originally filed in 2013. An amended complaint claimed Great Dane’s trailer was “unreasonably and unacceptably dangerous.”

Backing up their claim, the plaintiffs said “there were safer alternative designs that were scientifically, technologically, financially and economically available and feasible to Great Dane Trailer that would have reduced or eliminated the dangers of side underride.” Since Great Dane chose not to implement any of these alternative side guards, the plaintiffs claimed the company should be held liable.

The alternative design in question is what was referred to as a “telescoping side guard.” According to court documents, telescoping side guards slide and expand to “protect the space opened up when a truck’s sliding rear-axle…is moved toward the rear of the truck.”

However, both the district and appellate court disagreed with the claim.

“The problem is that, although elements of the telescoping design have existed for some time, and computer simulations suggest that the design could work, nobody has ever built or tested one in the real world,” the appellate court opinion states. “In the context of this case, including the total absence of real-world, physical-prototype testing and the fact that neither of the experts had designed (let alone built) a telescoping side guard prior to this litigation, the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence.”

The case stems from a crash that occurred in June 2013. Janice Wilden, 19 years old at the time, and her infant son crashed into the side of a trailer manufactured by Great Dane. The tractor-trailer was turning left into the northbound lanes of the Greenbelt Highway when Wilden’s car, which was traveling south on that highway, struck the left side of the trailer. Wilden suffered severe brain damage. Fortunately, her son’s injuries were not severe.

Wilden and her son’s legal guardians, who filed the lawsuit for the two, provided two expert witnesses that provided testimony about a telescoping side guard. However, neither expert had actually built one. In fact, both testified that, to the best of their knowledge, no one in the world has actually manufactured a telescoping side guard.

“It is undisputed that no horizontally telescoping side guard has ever actually been built or physically tested, let alone used in the trucking industry,” court documents reveal.

Defending their decision, the appellate court panel referred to a Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standard regarding rear-impact guards, which are the only impact guards required on trailers. The panel referenced another case that noted engineering challenges in designing a rear guard. Too strong and the guard will stop cars too quickly; too flexible and the guard will not adequately prevent underride. The court said physical prototype testing helps find that balance. Therefore, all the computer simulations mean very little.

Since no such testing exists, the expert testimony was deemed inadmissible. As this was the crux of the plaintiff’s lawsuit, both courts decided to throw out the case.

In the original complaint, only the truck driver and the companies he worked under were named as defendants. They were sued for common carrier liability and settled. Great Dane was not added to the lawsuit until the third amended complaint claiming product liability. As the lone defendant left in the case after everyone else settled, the decision in favor of Great Dane ends the case unless the plaintiffs petition to the Supreme Court.

AirFlow Deflector offers a variety of side underride guards for drybed and flatbed trailers, like this one. Trailer manufacturer Great Dane has recently been acquitted in a lawsuit saying it should have had telescoping side guards on a trailer that was hit by a passenger car.
Photo courtesy AirFlow Deflector