DRM Litigation Partner Walter Judge Submits Amicus Brief To Vermont Supreme Court In Products Liability Case
March 11, 2014
In a case alleging that a car seat manufacturer’s product was defective by not holding the driver in place during a rear-end crash, and that the automobile was therefore not “crashworthy,” Walter Judge submitted a brief in support of the position of the appealing defendant car seat manufacturer.
Walter and the defendant argue that the defendant should not have been prevented at trial from showing that the driver was not wearing her seat belt, which is an integral part of the overall safety design of the seat and the car. (Crashworthiness/Seat Belt Statute – Vermont Supreme Court – Appeal of Heco v. Johnson Controls, Inc., Chittenden Superior Court, Docket No. S869-1- Cnc.)
This “crashworthiness” case arises out of an accident where the plaintiff was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light in her 2000 Dodge Neon. The impact speed of approximately 40 miles per hour threw the plaintiff backwards out of her seat, striking the back of the rear seat with the top of her head resulting in a severe spinal injury. Defendant Johnson Controls designed and manufactured the driver’s seat of the Neon pursuant to certain specifications by Chrysler, the manufacturer of the Neon. Chrysler was not sued due to its bankruptcy, and other defendants settled. Johnson Controls was the only remaining defendant at trial.
At trial, the court excluded evidence that the plaintiff’s non-use of her seatbelt affected the performance of the seat and therefore was the cause of her injury. The court relied upon the Vermont Supreme Court decision in Ulm v. Ford, 170 Vt. 28 (2000), interpreting the Vermont seat belt statute, 23 V.S.A. Section 1259, to exclude evidence of non-use of a seat belt by a party in a civil case, without regard to the purpose of the offered evidence.
After a two-week trial, the jury returned a verdict of $43.1 million, the largest verdict in Vermont history. After denying Johnson Controls’ post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial, the court granted Johnson Controls’ motion for reduction on the awards for future lost income and future medical expenses and reduced the jury award to $39.6 million. Johnson Controls is appealing the verdict to the Vermont Supreme Court.
The amicus brief submitted by Walter, on behalf of the Products Liability Advisory Council, Inc., supports Johnson Controls’ position in the appeal. The brief argues that,
“Where a plaintiff alleges that a manufacturer has failed to produce a crashworthy product, it is essential to the defense of such claims – and only fundamentally fair – that the manufacturer be allowed to present a complete picture of those elements which combine to make its product a safe one.”
In this case, the refusal of the trial court to allow Johnson Controls to show that the plaintiff was not wearing her seat belt allowed the plaintiff to present a one-sided claim that the car seat was defective. The brief addresses the policy considerations behind the “crashworthiness” doctrine and seat belt evidence, and discusses the many decisions nationwide that have held that seat belt non-use should not withheld from the jury. The brief urges the Vermont Supreme Court to vacate the trial court verdict based on the trial court’s erroneous and prejudicial refusal to allow any evidence of the plaintiff’s non-use of her seat belt.
The brief was authored by Wendy Lumish of the Carlton Fields law firm in Miami, Florida, and Walter.
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