Our Personal Injury and Products Liability Section has been very busy handling cases in several states in both state and federal courts. The lawyers in the section will investigate any motor vehicle crash or product liability claim involving catastrophic injury or death regardless of where they occur. The following are some of the cases the Section is currently working on:
U.S. government officials have issued an urgent warning to drivers about the potential dangers posed by air bags made by Takata Corp., which can explode with excessive force and kill or seriously injure the front seat occupants of affected vehicles. The defect is linked to the air bags’ inflator systems, which can shoot metal fragments from the devices into the car like shrapnel. Airbags on both the driver’s and passenger’s side can explode, even as a result of a fender bender or other minor collision. To date, more than 14 million vehicles with Takata-manufactured airbags have been recalled due to defects. Tokyo-based Takata is one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers. It manufactures airbags, safety belts, steering wheels and other auto parts for a variety of automakers. Vehicles containing the defective airbags include certain models made by Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, and General Motors.
GM Ignition Switch Litigation
General Motors (GM) has recalled more than 17 million vehicles related to a defective ignition switch problem, which can leave a vehicle without power and the driver unable to control the vehicle in sudden and dangerous situations. Court documents and other evidence reveal that GM knew about the ignition switch problem as early as 2001.
Most of you have heard the name Brooke Melton by now. Her death uncovered GM’s massive cover-up of its defective ignition switch. Brooke Melton was killed in 2010, when her Chevy Cobalt crashed due to the defective General Motors ignition switch in her vehicle. The defect allowed the key to move from the “run” position to the “off” position, cutting power and disabling the vehicle’s power steering, power brakes and airbags. It’s rather ironic that Brooke’s parents, Ken and Beth Melton, were able to do that which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had failed to do by finding the defect in Brooke’s car. The agency was unaware of this fatal defect until it was brought to light following Brooke Melton’s tragedy, through the efforts of the Meltons and their lawyer Lance Cooper.
The Meltons suffered greatly because of Brooke’s death. But they were determined to help other families avoid what they went through because of GM’s conduct and the automaker’s cover-up of a known about defect for 10 years. Through the litigation, which our firm helped Lance with, it became known that GM knew about the ignition switch defect, and withheld that knowledge from the NHTSA and the public for a full decade. In that period of time, hundreds of innocent victims were killed because of GM’s wrongdoing and intentional cover-up. GM has now admitted that this defect killed – by its own count – 124 innocent people. The automaker recalled about 3 million cars with the very same defect that the Meltons had discovered and made public. The Meltons’ lawsuit against GM not only exposed GM’s ignition switch cover-up, but also brought to light the failure of NHTSA to effectively monitor automobile defect complaints, or hold automakers fully accountable for their wrongful acts and omissions.
Our Product Liability Section has handled numerous claims involving the GM ignition switch defect. Some of those claims were settled through the GM Ignition Switch Compensation Fund. Others are still pending in federal and state courts. Hopefully, through the Meltons’ efforts and the efforts of other Plaintiffs, GM will change its corporate atmosphere of ignoring and covering up design defects.
Heavy Trucking Accidents
There are significant differences between handling an interstate trucking case and other car wreck cases. It is imperative to have knowledge of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, technology, business practices, insurance coverages, and to have the ability to discover written and electronic records. Expert testimony is of utmost importance. Accidents involving semi-trucks and passenger vehicles often result in serious injuries and wrongful death. Trucking companies and their insurance companies almost always quickly send accident investigators to the scene of a truck accident to begin working to limit their liability in these situations. Our lawyers, staff and in-house accident investigators immediately begin the important task of documenting and preserving the evidence. We would like to review any case involving catastrophic injury or death.
Chris Glover, a lawyer in our Personal Injury Section, recently settled a heavy trucking case in Mississippi. Our clients’ son, Christopher Littlejohn, was on his way to work at Subway just before daylight when a truck driver for Werner Enterprises backed into his 2007 GMC Yukon. The truck driver had passed the weigh station, and instead of going to the next exit and turning around, the truck driver decided to stop and back his truck into regular lanes of traffic with no flashers. Mr. Littlejohn was just 26 years old and died as a result of this truck driver’s fatal decision.
In backing down the interstate, the truck driver violated multiple federal, state, and company rules and regulations. Unfortunately, this was not the first time the truck driver had disregarded the rules and regulations that govern commercial truck drivers. At the time of this accident, the truck driver had been licensed to drive a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) for less than two years. Of the two years that he had been licensed, the truck driver had a total of two and half months driving experience without a trainer. Also, during his two years of driving with a CDL, the truck driver had been employed by three different trucking companies. If Werner Enterprises would have correctly verified this truck driver’s employment, Werner would have discovered:
• The truck driver could not even make it out of training with his two previous employers;
• The truck driver could not, or would not, follow his training. At his first employer, the truck driver could not correctly complete turns or follow directions even with a trainer. At his second employer, the truck driver had two incidents while still in training; and
• The truck driver was apathetic toward training and his job as a truck driver. When offered additional training at his previous employment, the truck driver turned it down and was terminated.
The Littlejohn family settled their claims against Werner Enterprises for negligent and wanton hiring, supervising, retaining, and entrusting a vehicle to a truck driver who Werner should have known was incompetent to drive. Since settling this case, Chris Glover has written a book that explains how to properly litigate a heavy trucking case.
Tire failure can result in a serious car crash and even a vehicle rollover accident, causing serious injury or death to vehicle occupants. Air, heat and sunlight can cause the rubber in tires to break down. When a tire is defective, potentially serious problems like detreads and blowouts can occur long before the tire would be expected to wear out. If the tire failure is the result of design or manufacturing defects, and the manufacturer is aware of the problem, they have an obligation to alert consumers to the potential danger.
One serious problem with tires is that they wear down on the inside as they age, but they look brand new on the outside. LaBarron Boone, a lawyer in our Product Liability Section, will soon try a case over in Georgia involving an 11-year-old tire. In that case, our client was driving his friend’s RV to the BCS Championship in Louisiana. Several of his friends had come along and were passengers in the RV. Unbeknownst to our client or his friend who owned the RV, the driver’s side front tire was 11 years old. Because of its age, the tire de-treaded, causing the RV to swerve and hit a tree. This resulted in injuries to all passengers and two deaths, including our client. The tire had sufficient tread and did not look to be aged. In fact, the owner of the RV regularly took the RV in for service and was never informed by the RV technician that his tires needed to be removed due to age. This is just one of many cases that our firm has handled involving aged tires that cause fatalities and catastrophic injuries.
Despite the dangers of tire aging, NHTSA has still refused to establish a tire aging standard. A tire aging standard would make it easier for consumers to determine the tire’s age. Right now, the only way to determine the age of a tire is to decipher the cryptic code on the tire’s sidewall. Also, a tire aging standard would make it mandatory for tire centers to take tires out of service at a specified date, regardless of what the tire looks like on the outside. Beasley Allen lawyers will continue to heavily pursue actions for tire aging until such standards are in place.
Lawyers in the Section are currently handling several cases involving auto defects. Kendall Dunson is currently handling a case against General Motors for removing a very important safety feature from its 2008 Chevy Impala – the side curtain airbags. These airbags protect occupants from head and neck injuries. In that case, our client was driving a 2008 Impala when her vehicle was struck on the rear driver side by another vehicle. Because side airbags, which were standard safety equipment on the 2008 Impala, had been removed or “deleted” from the subject Impala, our client suffered enhanced injuries in the collision that she would not otherwise have suffered. Our client was paralyzed as a result of the wreck and subsequently died.
In another case, a Federal jury in Columbus, Ga., returned an $8-million verdict in the case against Volkswagen of America, Volkswagen AG (Germany) and Honeywell. Our firm was fortunate to represent Kevin and Cheryl Bullock in this 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 two long curves and reached speeds exceeding 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 that required multiple surgeries and ultimately a complete fusion. Her orthopedic surgeon referred to it as an “aviators fracture” because it was the same type injury 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.
After seven 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 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 cover-ups. Cheryl Bullock and her family will continue to adjust to life with her extensive impairments.
Non-Auto Product Defects
Our Product Liability Section also handles defective products unrelated to automobiles, including smoke detectors, flammable clothing, industrial equipment, and heaters, just to name a few. Most of the time, family members do not suspect that a defective product is the cause of a death or injury, and manufacturers readily blame the victim’s actions. But our firm has discovered that defective products are increasingly a major cause of unexpected deaths and injuries.
Nursing Home Negligence
Ben Locklar, a lawyer in the section, is currently handling many cases against nursing homes for negligence and wanton care of residents. Typically, these cases involve nursing home employees allowing residents to develop bedsores, to choke, or to fall because the employees are not providing adequate medical care. The most prominent issue we have faced in nursing cases involves the arbitration agreements that nursing homes require residents to sign before the resident can be admitted for treatment. Often times, the resident is not able to sign the arbitration agreement because of physical or mental incapacities. When a resident is incapacitated, the nursing home lets whoever is with the resident sign the agreement, regardless of whether that person is the resident’s chosen legal personal representative. This practice forces the resident to unknowingly waive the resident’s Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury, which is against legal precedent and public policy. The Alabama Supreme Court has determined in some instances that arbitration agreements for incompetent residents of nursing homes are not enforceable. Our firm continues to fight arbitration in these settings.
Currently we have 15 lawyers and 12 legal assistants working in the Section. Also, we utilize six in-house investigators and that gives us a real advantage in working up a case for trial. If you need to discuss a potential claim with a lawyer in the Section, or simply need information, contact Sloan Downes, the Section Administrator, at 800-898-2034 or Sloan.Downes@beasleyallen.com. She will put you in touch with the appropriate lawyer.
Contact us today for a free legal consultation with an experienced attorney.
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