Heavier Crash Victim's $2.5M Punitive Award Nixed

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By Lisa Helem

Sept. 25 — A $2.5 million punitive damages award to a heavier crash victim who argued she was injured because her Nissan Pathfinder's seatbelt wasn't made to protect riders of her size was vacated as “flagrantly against the evidence” by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The court said Amanda Maddox didn't present proof that could establish in the minds of reasonable jurors that Nissan acted in a grossly negligent manner with a reckless disregard for the lives and safety of others.

“We hold that Nissan's conduct was neither reckless nor demonstrated a failure to exercise slight care,” Judge Bill Cunningham wrote for the court. “Therefore, the jury verdict awarding punitive damages was palpable and flagrantly against the evidence.”

Neither plaintiff's counsel nor counsel for the automaker returned requests for comment Sept. 25.

A $5.1M Jury Verdict

At trial, Maddox, then 240 pounds, argued that the seatbelt system in her 2001 Nissan Pathfinder was defective because it was designed to protect only vehicle occupants at or near the median weight offered in federal vehicle safety regulations.

In a head-on collision with a drunk driver, Maddox's abdomen ruptured and she suffered rib and hip fractures. She ended up with 75 surgeries and spent 139 days hospitalized.

Maddox argued that Nissan designed its seatbelt load limiter to achieve a five-star crash test rating to appeal to customers, but neglected the safety of occupants weighing more than the 171-pound range of the test dummy.

A trial court jury ruled in Maddox's favor and found Nissan Motor Co. and Nissan North America, Inc. responsible for about $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. The court entered a final judgment reflecting that verdict.

A state appeals court affirmed that ruling in Aug. 2013.

No Gross Negligence

But, here, Kentucky's top court said that Maddox's evidence, including testimony from her expert Gary Whitman presented evidence from which jurors could've found Nissan negligent, but not grossly so.

Whitman, a safety restraint specialist, testified at trial that based on his own tests, Nissan's load limiter allowed up to 11 inches of belt spool-out, exceeding the nine inches allowed by Nissan's design specifications.

He opined that such a design wasn't safe for passengers whose weight deviated a lot from the mean. He also said that Amanda's seatbelt provided more webbing spool-out because she weighed more than her husband and fellow passenger, Dwayne Maddox, and a 171-pound crash test dummy.

Nissan, he added, should have warned customers of the load limiter's limitations.

But, the court concluded that a Nissan safety test report demonstrated “at least some effort to test the safety of Nissan's seatbelt system using a crash dummy weighing in the 95th percentile.”

As a result, Nissan provided additional evidence demonstrating that its vehicle was subjected to testing requirements exceeding federal government mandated ones.

As a result, “no reasonable juror could determine that Nissan's conduct demonstrated a reckless or wanton disregard for occupants weighing at or near the 95th percentile,” the court said.

The court reversed the appeals court's judgment on the punitive damages issue and vacated the trial court's judgment assessing punitive damages against Nissan.

The $2.6 million compensatory award stands.

The Law Office of Richard Hay of Somerset, Ky. and J. Paul Long Jr. Attorney at Law of Stanford, Ky. represented Maddox.

Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, Stites & Harbison, PLLC and others represented Nissan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Helem in Washington at lhelem@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

For More Information

The opinions is available here http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/NISSAN_MOTOR_COMPANY_LTD_AND_NISSAN_NORTH_AMERICA_INC_APPELLANTS_