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From Products Liability Law Daily, October 22, 2014

Rear seat passenger awarded $12.5M in defective Toyota seat belt design action

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A California Superior Court jury awarded a young woman $12,569,853.00 in damages after determining that the rear center seat restraint system in a 1996 Toyota 4Runner was defectively designed. The jury also determined that the potential risks in the rear center seat restraint system were known or knowable by Toyota at the time the vehicle was manufactured but that ordinary consumers like Ms. Hill would not have recognized those risks. (Hill v. Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., October 17, 2014).

Background. The lawsuit arose out of a single-car accident which occurred when the driver of a 1996 Toyota 4Runner lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a tree. Chelsie Hill, who was a teen-ager at the time of the accident, was riding in the rear center seat and wearing the lap-only belt that came as standard equipment on the vehicle. When the vehicle collided with the tree, Ms. Hill “jackknifed” over the lap belt, severing her spinal cord, and rendering her a paraplegic.

In her complaint, Ms. Hill alleged that the installation of a two-point lap seatbelt in the center rear seat position instead of a three-point shoulder harness seat belt rendered the vehicle defective and not crash worthy. The complaint also stated that Toyota had received notice, warnings, and information from third-parties, including the automotive industry and government agencies, that the use of a two-point lap seatbelt in the rear center seat was a dangerous condition which could result in the type of injury sustained by Ms. Hill. Despite Toyota’s knowledge of the potential risks of using the two-point seatbelt, the company failed to warn passengers of those risks. The complaint also charged that Toyota disregarded its own investigation and due diligence, and intentionally delayed the installation of three-point shoulder harness seat belts in order to maximize its profits.

In a press release announcing the verdict, Ms. Hill’s attorney, Bob Rosenthal, stated, “Toyota had the technology, and chose not to use it, putting the least safe and least expensive restraint system in that seat.” Rosenthal asked the jury to “think about who is most responsible for her paralysis, who put that seat belt there, who made the decision to disregard anyone sitting in that rear center seat.” Rosenthal also noted that the Hill case is the most recent in a line of court cases, dating from the 1980s, involving injuries caused by lap-only belts in motor vehicle crashes, adding that “even though Toyota and other manufacturers have known for decades that lap-only belts are needlessly dangerous, they have failed to recall or warn about those existing older vehicles still on the road, equipped with lap belts. These older vehicles are ticking time-bombs being driven by young drivers and young families, the very people most likely to put someone in that rear center seat.”

Allocation of fault. In addition to finding Toyota at fault in causing Ms. Hill’s injuries, the jury found negligence on the part of the driver of the vehicle and Ms. Hill. The jury assigned responsibility as follows: Toyota – 90 percent; the driver – 5 percent; and Ms. Hill – 5 percent.

Damage award. The itemized verdict totals were as follows:

Past medicals: $615,066.00

Future medical and life care expenses: $7,191,239.00

Loss of future earnings: $763,548.00

Past pain and suffering (noneconomic): $1,000,000.00

Future pain and suffering: $3,000,000.00

Total: $12,569,853.00

Mr. Rosenthal advised that “the total was miss-added when read by the clerk, as the first line item was not included in the total. The actual line-item amounts awarded by the jury are as set forth above. A motion will be made, if Toyota does not stipulate, to amend the verdict total to conform with the Jury’s award.”

The case number is M114985.

Attorneys: Bob Rosenthal (Bohnen, Rosenthal & Kreeft) for Chelsie Hill. Vincent Galvin (Bowman and Brooke LLP) for Toyota Motor Corp.

Companies: Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews DamagesNews CaliforniaNews

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