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“Special Knowledge” Jury Instruction Required Reversal of Verdict in Plaintiff’s Favor

Written September 29, 2014

Earlier this year in the New York Court of Appeals, the court reversed a $10,000,000 jury verdict for a plaintiff based on an improper jury instruction given by the judge. Evidently, the plaintiff successfully requested that the jurors be told that they could assume that the car manufacturer possessed “special knowledge.” The lower court accepted the plaintiff’s submitted jury request and instructed the jury on the fact that the defendant car manufacturer possessed special knowledge.

In the case of Reis v. Volvo Cars of N. Am., the plaintiff lost his leg when he was standing in front of a Volvo when it lurched forward. According to court documents, the plaintiff and a friend were looking under the hood of the car, when the friend asked if the plaintiff wanted to see the engine run. The plaintiff said yes, and his friend walked over to start the car. Once the plaintiff’s friend started the car, it lurched forward, pinning the plaintiff against the wall. Unbeknownst to the plaintiff at the time, the car was in gear when it was started, and that was why the car lurched.

At trial, the plaintiff claimed that Volvo should have installed a “starter interlock” that would have prevented the car from lurching forward when it was started while in gear. The plaintiff submitted evidence that showed other car manufacturers used a similar device to prevent exactly this type of problem.

The Problematic Instruction

When it came time for the judge to instruct the jury, the judge accepted the plaintiff’s suggested jury instruction, which read:

Volvo has special skills in designing and manufacturing automobiles. If you decide that Volvo did use the same degree of skill and care that other manufacturers selling automobiles in the United States would reasonably use in the same situation, then you must find that Volvo was not negligent, no matter what resulted from defendant’s conduct.

On the other hand, if you decide that Volvo did not use the same degree of skill and care, then you must find that Volvo was negligent.

The Court’s Holding

The Court determined that the given instruction was a malpractice jury instruction, such as the ones given when a case is brought against a physician. However, the duty of a physician, under the law, is different from that of others, even those who produce specialized products such as automobiles. In other words, the physician’s conduct is compared to others in the community, who possess the same “special knowledge.” However, regular defendants are held to the “reasonable person” standard. The reasonable person standard does not assume specialized knowledge or training.

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If you or a loved one has recently been involved in a serious accident, you may be entitled to monetary damages. However, negligence lawsuits can be extremely complex at times and may require the assistance of an experienced injury attorney. To learn more about the laws in New York that allow for accident victims to recover for their injuries, contact one of the experienced and skilled lawyers at Duffy & Duffy, a Long Island-based personal injury firm that has been dutifully representing its clients since its inception in 2001. Call (516) 394-4200 to schedule a free consultation today.

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