3rd Circuit upholds dismissal of consortium claim after spouse’s ‘surprise’ settlement
(Reuters) – A federal appeals court has affirmed the dismissal of a woman’s loss of consortium claim after she accused her then-husband of secretly striking his own settlement in a case they brought over his injuries from a crash involving an allegedly defective Ford Motor Co truck.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Thursday that a lower court had rightly granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment on the claim from Jacqueline Rupert, who said she lost the companionship and comfort of her husband Michael after he suffered devastating burn injuries in a 2010 crash that led to the loss of both legs, an arm and penis.
According to their 2012 lawsuit, Michael Rupert was involved in an accident while driving his 1993 Ford F-250 pickup truck. The truck caught fire and he was unable to escape the cabin, leading him to suffer severe burn injuries. He and Jacqueline settled with the driver of another vehicle involved in the accident and the driver’s employer for $19 million, of which Jacqueline received about 3 percent, according to court filings.
The Ruperts then sued Ford, bringing claims including strict liability, negligence and failure to warn, as well as a loss of consortium claim on behalf of Jacqueline. They alleged that had the truck cabin been better designed, Michael would not have been trapped and his injuries would have been avoided or mitigated.
While the suit was pending, the couple was also going through divorce proceedings, which Jacqueline described as contentious, according to court filings. The spouses each retained separate attorneys, but Jacqueline said they were cooperating on the litigation until Michael suddenly announced that he had reached a settlement with Ford that did not include her.
Jacqueline said this put her at a disadvantage, as she had relied on Michael’s legal team to lead the litigation, particularly since her claim was derivative and predicated on the success of his case. She asked for, and received, an extension on certain discovery deadlines.
Ford moved to disqualify Jacqueline Rupert’s expert witnesses, and the court partly granted the motion, striking critical testimony including support for her claim that the truck was not crashworthy. Without that support, Jacqueline could not support her claim, and the judge granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment.
Jacqueline Rupert appealed, saying the court had wrongly excluded her expert witness’s testimony and had treated her unfairly as she attempted to carry on with the litigation after Michael’s departure. She also argued that the court had erred in letting Michael settle and dismiss his claim without prejudice, depriving her of the right to litigate her claim.
The 3rd Circuit disagreed, and affirmed the judgment. The district court had allowed Jacqueline to continue with her claim and even granted her brief deadline extensions after Michael’s settlement. Jacqueline “did not provide evidence establishing her right to control her husband’s settlement negotiations,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, joined by Judges Thomas Ambro and Anthony Scirica.
The district court had also correctly excluded the critical portions of testimony because they were not in the witness’s key area of expertise, the panel held.