Particles in power steering fluid not responsible for crash

Many of the frivolous suits we cover here on Overlawyered are laugh-out-loud outrageous; but (as the plaintiff’s bar will trumpet in self-defense) these represent only a small fraction of lawsuits. (Of course, even at a small percentage, there’s enough of them for us to blog about them nearly every day.) Most of the suits that make up the “high cost of our legal system” are much more mundane — though not necessarily any less legally ridiculous or less costly. Take a decision handed down last month by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals involving a lawsuit against Nissan. (PDF)

In August 1997 — note the date here — a bunch of high school kids were driving around after school in a 1987 Nissan Sentra. The driver, who may or may not have been “speeding and driving recklessly,” depending on who you believe, lost control of the car. The car flipped over, and one of the passengers, Troy Boss (who, by the way, wasn’t wearing a seat belt), ended up paralyzed.

Thus endeth the tragic story, and thus beginneth Boss’s quest for deep pockets. (Which was also tragic, but only for Boss’s victims.) First, Boss settled his claims against the person actually responsible for the accident — Stacy Harmon, the driver of the car. Then, hunting around, Boss and his attorney decided that the only truly deep pocket they could find was Nissan, which somehow was responsible for a teenager crashing a 10-year old car. So, in February 2002 — five years after the accident — he filed a $50 million suit in Baltimore against Nissan, Jiffy Lube (which had done an oil change on the car), a company called Eberle Enterprises (which had done the state auto inspection when Harmon bought the car), and a woman named Elizabeth Aldridge (who had sold the used car to Harmon several months earlier for $750). The theory that Boss came up with? That Nissan manufactured the car defectively, in such a way that “particles” in the power steering fluid mysteriously jammed the steering mechanism in some way, causing the car to swerve.

But if that was Boss’s theory, you might wonder why Boss sued all those other defendants. What does an oil change have to do with power steering fluid? What does the prior owner of the car have to do with power steering fluid? What does a routine car inspection — which does not, by state law, involve power steering fluid — have to do with anything? The answer to all three questions? Nothing at all. So why were they in the case? One reason, and one reason only: by fraudulently joining them as defendants, Boss hoped to keep the case in state court, to destroy diversity. Under federal law, once the case has been in state court for a year, regardless of how fraudulent the reasons are, the case can’t be removed to federal court — and there was testimony in the case that Boss’s attorney had admitted he was deliberately stalling to get beyond the one year mark.


Ultimately, it took 10 months from the time the suit was filed for these completely innocent — even under the plaintiff’s theory — defendants to find out that Boss’s entire case against them was fictional, and it took another 5 months beyond that for them to entirely extricate themselves from the case.

That just left Nissan. And it only took Nissan two more years — we’re now in May 2005 — to prove why Boss was so desperate to keep the case out of federal court: because the standards for scientific evidence are much higher in federal court. Boss’s experts had a little problem: they had no evidence for their “particle jam” theory. They had no evidence that particle jamming had occurred or how likely it was to occur, or that it would cause the car to behave as it did. In fact, they had to ignore the car driver’s own testimony of what actually happened, and their entire argument was based upon the assumption that a teenage driver’s reckless driving couldn’t explain her car crashing. Oh, and the NHTSA had studied the issue and found that it didn’t exist. Needless to say, the judge wasn’t impressed.

So, after 3 years of litigation, eight years after the accident, the case was over, right? Nope. Boss appealed. He tried to get Jiffy Lube and Eberle back into the case, and tried to get his “expert” testimony admitted. The Circuit Court wasn’t any more impressed than the District Court judge, though. Now, ten years after the accident, five years after the suit was filed, the case might finally be over. But Jiffy Lube, Eberle, and Aldridge spent $10,000-$20,000 on a case that had nothing to do with them, and Nissan spent ten times that. And this was just a routine car crash.

6 Comments

  • Good write-up David. It’s not really the obviously frivolous multi-million dollar pants lawsuits that are causing the problem. It’s the mundane but without any factual or legal basis ones that are causing the real harm.

    We had a lawsuit recently where a person claimed to have slipped on 1/4 inches of water in a convenience store. She also claimed that there were no mats where she slipped.

    Well, the defendant filed a motion for summary disposition along with a video of the incident. Not only was there no water. Not only was there a mat at the entrance. She did not even fall! Yeah, that was dismissed.

    And than there was the case filed by a big-wig Michigan attorney whose brother used to play for the Knack. (Hint hint!)

    Anyway, the plaintiff made an illegal left turn into the defendant who had the right of way. The only possible way the defendant could have been at fault was if she was speeding through the intersection. But every single witness testified that the defendant was driving under the limit. He ended up dismissing her from the case.

    The remaining defendants in the lawsuit were construction companies who allegedly blocked the plaintiff’s view of the intersection with their equipment, which is bad enough.

  • The judge may not have granted an award to Boss, BUT the case was allowed to proceed causing innocent defendants to waste their money.
    Why would any judge allow this to happen … because they too are trained as lawyers. It is absurd that someone could be allowed to file a suit like this for more than they settled for from the person that actually caused the accident. What happens to doctors that are caught extending illnesses or providing services that are not needed? Why shouldn’t the same standard be applied to lawyers? Oh, that’s right, because they are also the ones creating and enforcing the laws.

  • From the decision:

    “Boss claimed that Aldridge and Eberle negligently
    represented the car to be in safe condition and that Jiffy Lube negligently failed to change the power steering fluid.”

    One small problem: JL doesn’t change power steering fluid. In fact, no manufacturer recommends that it be changed. EVER.

    How are they able to flat out LIE in sworn documents without repercussions?

  • So true.

    My one jury duty experience so far was a frivolous lawsuit, though too mundane to ever appear in a blog, essay, or on the news.

    Anyway, some small time nail salon (sole proprietor) got sued for burning some woman’s face during a routine waxing procedure, one of 20 that day. The trial took about 2 years to get to court – a fact both sides trotted out for sympathy – and took us all of 15 minutes to decide. 15 minutes!

    The decision?

    No one was negligent. That’s right, nothing happened. %0 negligence for the plaintiff, %0 for the defendant. Nothing.

    You could see the sigh of relief on the faces of the owner and his mother (the person accused of the negligent procedure) when the verdict was read.

    Anyway, 2 years, and tens of thousands of dollars for 15 minutes of “duh?”.

  • It stuns me that it takes 5 years for the courts to find that this guy didn’t have a case. Why does the current court system allow these things to drag on?

    Faster trials might not help reduce the number of these sort lawsuits, but at least it would be over quickly for the defendant. I know if I was being sued, I wouldn’t want to spend 5 years thinking about it, let alone the legal fees.

  • I realize the glut of lawsuits, criminal cases, etc. that are loading up the courtrooms, but could someone explain what was done, in this case, to take five-plus years to decide certain people weren’t–SHOULD’NT–have been sued!!

    For example, Jiffy Lube (to take what is written here) could’ve said, “We don’t replace power steering fluid, and none of the manufacturers recommend it ever be replaced.” If the plaintiff lawyers could not disprove it, Jiffy Lube is off the hook. The time it would take for that would be a LOT less than five years.

    The other question should be why this case was filed five years after the accident. I could understand a year or two, but FIVE YEARS???!!
    Can any action be taken against the lawyers for dragging out a case, like this one was?