On the eve of the announcement of Volkswagen’s intentional consumer deception involving its diesel vehicles, lawyers in our firm tried an important lawsuit against Volkswagen and component part manufacturer Honeywell Technologies. A Federal jury in Columbus, Georgia, returned an $8 million dollar verdict in the case against Volkswagen of America, Volkswagen AG (Germany) and Honeywell. Our firm was fortunate to represent Kevin and Cheryl Bullock in a lawsuit involving severe and permanent injuries Cheryl sustained in a 2011 crash in her Volkswagen turbo diesel Passat.
On the Labor Day weekend in 2011, Cheryl and her daughter were returning to north Georgia after visiting her parents in Bainbridge. As Cheryl drove along through rural Georgia, she realized that her car began going faster than she intended. She took her foot off the accelerator and pumped her brakes, but the car continued to accelerate. As she fought to control her Passat, the vehicle accelerated around 2 long curves and reached speeds over 90 miles an hour. Eyewitnesses testified at trial that her vehicle moved from left to right as she tried to slow her accelerating vehicle.
Unfortunately, unable to slow or stop her Passat, Cheryl struck another vehicle and her vehicle rolled over several times before coming to rest upside down. Although she was properly wearing her seatbelt, Cheryl suffered life-threatening injuries. She suffered a closed head brain injury, fractures to her spine and legs, and severe internal injuries and bleeding. Among her extensive orthopedic injuries was a catastrophic break to her right ankle which required multiple surgeries and ultimately a complete fusion. Her orthopedic surgeon referred to it as an “aviators fracture” because it was the same type injuries pilots receive in a crash if their feet are on the control pedals at the time of the crash. In this case, it was proof that Cheryl was pushing her brake pedal when she crashed.
After the crash, our firm was contacted by the Bullocks and we began our investigation. Upon the initial inspection, we discovered that the brakes on the Passat showed signs of overheating discoloration (bluing) and the turbo charger intake hoses were saturated with wet, liquid oil. After our expert, along with representatives from Volkswagen and Honeywell, disassembled the turbocharger on the Bullock Passat, it was apparent that a defectively designed seal leaked oil through the turbocharger into the intake.
If the car had been equipped with a gas burning engine, oil forced into the intake would have fouled the spark plugs and most likely stopped the engine. Because Cheryl’s Volkswagen was a diesel, however, the engine was able to burn engine oil as a secondary fuel source. As a result, oil that leaked from the turbo seal accumulated in the intercooler and air hoses and became a secondary uncontrolled source of fuel for the car and as a result the vehicle accelerated out of control.
During pretrial discovery, both Volkswagen and Honeywell argued that no other incidents existed and that we were completely wrong about what caused this crash. In fact, both defendants blatantly blamed Cheryl Bullock for her own injuries and tried several times to have her case dismissed. Honeywell claimed that their seal was not defective and they had no complaints about it. However, Mike Andrews, one of our lawyers, was able to discover that Honeywell was aware of their leaky seal years before the Bullock vehicle was manufactured, yet failed to correct the design defect. Two engineering reports – authored by Honeywell turbocharger engineers and admitted at trial – detailed how the subject seal design leaked in turbochargers installed on agricultural equipment, heavy trucks, and when tested on Volkswagen engines. The reports went on to document how Honeywell could have corrected the defect through alternative designs that Honeywell tested years before our car was built. But just like the recent Volkswagen coverup of emissions’ cheating, the engineering reports were kept secret until they were discovered in this trial.
After 7 days of trial, a jury logically concluded that the turbocharger seal was defective and that the defect caused the crash that permanently disabled Cheryl Bullock. Based on the amount of her medical bills, and testimony from a vocational rehabilitation life care planner and an economist regarding the extent of her disability, the jury returned an award of $7 million dollars for Cheryl and $1 million for her husband Kevin for his loss of consortium claim.
Beasley Allen lawyers Kendall Dunson and Mike Andrews represented the Bullock family and were very pleased with the verdict. They did a tremendous job in this case for their clients. This crash shows that – just like the GM Cobalt debacle – that vehicles can pass Federal standards and still be grossly defective. The verdict also shows that jurors who hear the evidence won’t tolerate defective vehicles or coverups. Cheryl Bullock and her family will continue to adjust to life with her extensive impairments. We are mighty glad that our firm was given the opportunity to help them.
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