Thompson v. Nissan
Louisiana Federal Court Judge Grants Summary Judgment to Nissan in Fire Case
(April 2006)

A federal judge in New Orleans, Louisiana granted summary judgment on claims that the fuel system in a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder contained design and warnings defects. Leonard Thompson, et al. v Nissan North America, Inc., et al. (E.D. La., No. 03-0172).

On January 20, 2002, Betty Segura was driving a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder with five relatives as passengers. Due to an alleged deflation of the left rear tire, Ms. Segura lost control of the vehicle, which flipped and landed on its roof on a bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. A large amount of fuel spilled from the vehicle’s fuel filler tube, and ignited during the crash. Ms. Segura and three of the passengers perished. The other two passengers survived, but Leonard Thompson sustained third degree burns over a large portion of his body, including disfiguring burns to his head and face.

After the accident, the fire department personnel who responded to the scene observed that the fuel filler door to the vehicle was closed, but inside there was no evidence of a fuel filler cap having been in place prior to the fire. Plaintiffs retained Jerry Wallingford and Thomas Green, who opined that the fuel system of the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder was defectively designed. Additionally, plaintiffs’ experts alleged that Nissan failed to provide an adequate warning of the dangers associated with an improperly tightened or misplaced fuel filler cap.

Specifically, plaintiffs’ experts conducted testing to show the amount of fuel which is released through the filler tube when a vehicle is inverted and the gas cap is not in place. They then alleged that Nissan should have implemented alternative designs, which would have prevented the leakage of fuel from the filler tube if the vehicle was inverted and the gas cap was misplaced.

Nissan’s fuel system design expert, Mark Noble, testified that all of the alternative designs suggested by plaintiffs were not in existence at the time of the design of the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder. Further, Mr. Noble tested the alternative designs suggested by plaintiffs, and demonstrated that each would have defeated the utility of the vehicle. Specifically, one alternative could not be fitted to the gas tank of the Pathfinder without significant design and structural changes to the vehicle itself. All of the suggested alternative designs prevented proper pressure equalization in the tank during filling the tank at a commercial filling station. Therefore, it was shown that none of the alternative designs allowed the tank to be filled at a commercial filling station, and any attempt to fill the tank produced excessive “spit-back” of fuel out of the tank and onto the customer.

Judge A. J. McNamara, after reviewing the evidence, determined that the alternative designs were not feasible, as required by the Louisiana Product Liability Act. Additionally, the court conducted a cost/benefit analysis, and determined that the utility of the vehicle was so diminished by the alternative designs, that this cost far outweighed the benefit associated with implementing the alternative designs. The court noted that plaintiffs’ experts could produce no other known instance of a vehicle rolling over with a misplaced gas cap, resulting in spillage of fuel out of the fuel filler tube and causing a fire.

With regard to plaintiffs’ warning claims, plaintiffs’ experts failed to provide an alternative warning which, if implemented, would have prevented the accident or plaintiffs’ injuries. Leonard Thompson was the individual who last filled the gas tank. He testified that he replaced and “tightened” the gas cap all the way. Therefore, the court concluded he needed no warning of the dangers associated with failing to tighten or replace the gas cap, as plaintiffs’ experts suggested.

Nissan North America, Inc. was represented by Keith W. McDaniel and Lance B. Williams of McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch in Covington, Louisiana.