In a lawsuit that generated a great deal of national attention, Tennessee’s Supreme Court has upheld an award of $18.4 million in damages against DaimlerChrysler Corp. The court ruled that a faulty seat design caused the death of a baby in Nashville in 2001. The ruling overturned a Tennessee Court of Appeals’ decision that threw out an award of $13.4 million in punitive damages for the parents of the eight-month-old baby. The appeals court agreed with a $5 million compensatory damage award by the lower court.
The infant died in a collision that occurred when the driver of a pickup truck, traveling at some 70 miles per hour — in a 35-mile-per-hour zone — rear-ended the 1998 Dodge Caravan in which the baby was riding in a car seat. The front passenger seat collapsed on top of the baby, who was fatally injured.
The parents claimed in their lawsuit that the car maker knew its seats tended to collapse backward in rear-end collisions, but did nothing to fix the problem. Paul Sheridan, a former chair of the Minivan Safety Leadership Team at Chrysler, testified that his group decided in 1993 to advocate changes in the seats because of the danger. Sheridan, who was fired in 1994, claimed the company’s chief engineer ordered him to retrieve and destroy all copies of the committee’s meetings. In November 2004, a jury in Davidson County Circuit Court found DaimlerChrysler and the pickup truck driver jointly liable for the baby’s death. It imposed total damages of $105 million, but the trial judge found that amount excessive and cut it to $27.5 million.
The Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court on one element of damages. The court denied $9.1 million in damages for emotional distress. But the court reinstated the punitive damages award. Writing for the majority, Justice Janice Holder said there was “a wealth of evidence supporting the jury’s verdict.” She cited testimony that DaimlerChrysler “had received notice of children injured by yielding seatbacks as early as the mid-1980s.” Sheridan’s testimony was also cited in her opinion. And she noted that accidents similar to the one that killed this baby had injured children on six other occasions. Judge Holder characterized the “proof of DCC’s recklessness” as “powerful” in her opinion.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America and the Product Liability Advisory Council each filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case supporting DaimlerChrysler. This is a most significant decision and the punitive damages aspect should withstand an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Source: Associated Press
Contact us today for a free legal consultation with an experienced attorney.
Fields marked *may be required for submission.
If you would like to subscribe to the Jere Beasley Report digital edition, simply visit our Subscriptions page and provide the necessary information or call us at 800-898-2034.
Attorney Advertising - Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.