The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a $15.7 million verdict against a Philadelphia Toyota dealership over debilitating injuries that a physician and her family sustained in a car crash because the company negligently maintained the rental car involved in the incident. In a per curiam order, the court refused to review an appeal submitted in January by M&B Paul Inc., which does business as Ardmore Toyota, and Central City Toyota. The order further upholds a 2013 trial court ruling for Dr. Noreen Lewis and five other passengers hurt in her rented Toyota Sienna minivan when it crashed in 2008.
Dr. Lewis received $11.4 million, and the passengers received a combined $4.3 million after jurors found that Central City Toyota, which maintained the vehicle, was fully at fault for the crash. Dr. Lewis was left with virtually no use of her left arm. She had reserved the Sienna for a family trip to New York to attend her daughter’s school play. When Dr. Lewis picked up the vehicle, she noticed that the exterior was dented and the interior was dirty. But when she asked rental company PhillyCarShare for a different vehicle, the company assured her that the minivan was safe to operate and said the company did not have any similarly sized vehicles available.
As she drove the minivan, Dr. Lewis felt the steering wheel “shimmy,” and the vehicle’s check engine light came on. She then contacted PhillyCarShare. A representative told her that if she took the car to a service station, the company would pay for the service. But on their way to a service center, the minivan’s wheels locked and the vehicle started skidding. Dr. Lewis tried to steer the vehicle, but the wheel was difficult to move, and the car skidded across the road, struck the barrier and rolled into a ditch, flipping over three times. In the incident, Dr. Lewis suffered serious injuries, including lacerations to her ear, face, head and thighs, a severe cardiac contusion, spine fracture and intestinal injuries. She is now permanently disabled and no longer can work as a physician or in any other capacity.
At the time of the accident, Central City Toyota was the sole maintenance provider for the Sienna, since PhillyCarShare outsources its maintenance. And between October 2006 and December 2007, the dealership serviced the Sienna eight times. The crash was caused by a worn and deteriorated ball joint in the Sienna’s front passenger side, according to an expert retained by Dr. Lewis and PhillyCarShare. The expert opined that the damage to the ball joint was long-standing. A Toyota engineer testified that ball-joint deterioration takes “quite a long time … over a long period of time.”
The company appealed the lower court’s ruling in 2014, arguing to a Superior Court panel that the trial court made prejudicial errors during the pretrial, trial and post-trial proceedings. The dealership argued that the court erred by limiting the testimony of the Defendants’ automotive mechanic expert, precluding testimony from the Defendants’ accident reconstruction expert, precluding portions of testimony from a trooper who arrived to the crash site after the accident, denying a mistrial motion in light of missing evidence from co-defendant Toyota Inc., and denying Defendants post-discovery inspection of the vehicle.
In October 2014, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s findings, ruling that the lower court made only one small error by limiting the testimony of the accident reconstruction expert, but found it to be a harmless error because the jury still heard the evidence the expert would have provided.
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