The Pennsylvania Superior Court last month upheld a $55 million jury verdict against Honda Motor Co. It was alleged that Honda ignored a seat belt defect that a driver claimed led to his becoming paralyzed in a rollover. The Supreme Court found that a trial court judge did not err in her jury instructions. The appeals court rejected Honda’s arguments that a key Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision updating the state’s tort law issued after the verdict but before post-trial motions should have compelled the judge to order a new trial. Plaintiff Carlos Martinez sued the automaker in 2011, alleging he became a quadriplegic after his 1999 Acura Integra rolled over.
In June 2014, a Philadelphia jury issued the $55 million verdict against Honda, which Martinez’s lawyers called the highest auto defect verdict ever issued in the state. In its appeal, Honda claimed a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Tincher v. Omegaflex, required the trial Judge Shelley Robins-New to have granted a new trial. But Judge Alice Beck Dubow said in the Supreme Court’s opinion, “We find that the trial court, even in light of Tincher, properly instructed the jury and precluded certain evidence.”
On Appeal Honda depended on what it claimed were faulty jury instructions. The company pointed to the finding in the Tincher case that in design defect cases, juries – rather than judges – must determine whether a product is unreasonably dangerous. Honda argued that by engaging in a risk-utility calculus, Judge Robins-New was the one who made this determination, and that as a result of this, the company deserved a new trial. The Superior Court, however, looked at the jury instructions in the trial and concluded that they demanded the jury engage in its own risk-utility calculus. Judge Dubow said:
Although the language in this charge – that there was an ‘alternative, safer, practicable design’ for the seat belt restraint system – is not precisely the language required for the risk utility analysis, we conclude that the charge is not fundamentally flawed. The portion of the charge to determine the ‘practicability of an alternate design’ inherently requires the jury to balance factors such as the cost of implementing the design against the relative safety of the alternate design.
Honda argued that Judge Robins-New did not properly instruct the jurors on the question of crashworthiness. The company said the judge failed to charge the jury on Martinez’s responsibility to show what injuries, if any, would have come from an alternative, safer design for a seatbelt, and that she also failed to charge them on whether Martinez proved certain injuries were attributable to the flawed design. But the appeals court concluded that the jury instructions did not require the level of specificity demanded by Honda.
The 2014 verdict in favor of Martinez included $25 million for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering, $14.6 million for future medical expenses, $15 million for his wife’s loss of consortium and $720,000 for lost future earnings.
Martinez is represented by Stewart J. Eisenberg and Daniel J. Sherry Jr. of Eisenberg Rothweiler Winkler Eisenberg & Jeck PC and Howard Bashman. The case is American Honda Motor Co. Inc. v. Martinez et al. (case number 445 EDA 2015) in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
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