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June 20 — Car seat maker Dorel Juvenile Group will challenge a $34 million jury verdict in the Eastern District of Texas that determined a defective, forward-facing Safety 1st Summit seat caused a child's spinal cord and brain injuries ( Hinson v. Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc., E.D. Tex., No. 2:15-cv-00713, verdict 6/17/16 ).
Dorel said it will issue “a vigorous appeal” to the trial court, and if necessary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit following a June 17 verdict that included $10 million in punitive damages.
“Dorel strongly disagrees with the jury award and is optimistic of a favorable outcome as the case continues to proceed through the legal system,” it said.
Plaintiffs' attorney Jeff Embry, who specializes in product liability as a partner at Hossley Embry in Dallas, told Bloomberg BNA June 20 that the award on behalf of Cayden Hinson, now 5, is very significant.
“The significance is not based on the dollar amount awarded, but rather on the fact that Dorel tried to excuse its failure to warn of the dangers of placing a toddler forward-facing by denying years of its own public statements to the contrary,” Embry said. “The simple fact was the jury didn't buy Dorel's arguments.”
Embry said Dorel is “still selling forward-facing only seats without warning parents of the risk of using them with young toddlers and their fragile necks and spines. Hopefully, this verdict will make them reconsider that going forward and possibly save other children from serious injury,” he said.
Embry said the verdict was only the second for plaintiffs in a car seat case against Dorel. A Mississippi jury in 2013 awarded plaintiffs about $52 million for harm to a paralyzed child who using a Cosco Protek belt positioning booster seat ( Thrailkill v. Dorel Juvenile Group, Inc., No. 251-11-226 ((Miss. Cir. Ct. 2013).
“Dorel has won most of the recent cases to go to trial involving their car seats,” Embry said.
The jury cleared Wal-Mart Stores of any liability for its allegedly poor installation of two tires on a second vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban driven by co-defendant Stacey Tilley, that crashed into the plaintiffs' car in 2013.
The child was partially paralyzed in the crash and will not walk again. He also suffered brain injuries.
Tilley was assessed 20 percent of the responsibility for the harm.
The injured child's mother, Nicole Hinson, who strapped the then three-year-old child into a front-facing car seat behind the front passenger, was also cleared of liability.
Two verdicts were issued in the case.
The first, covering compensatory damages, awarded $24.4 million for mental anguish, disfigurement, loss of earning capacity, physical impairment and medical expenses.
A second verdict awarded $10 million in punitive damages.
Challenging the verdict, Dorel said in a statement there was “substantial evidence produced that the child had not been properly secured by the shoulder straps at the time of the crash.”
“The seat in question has an excellent safety record and has been used without incident. We stand by this product which meets all government standards,” Dorel president and CEO, Martin Schwartz, said in the June 20 statement.
But plaintiffs' attorney George Cowden IV, also with Hossley Embry, told Bloomberg BNA June 20 that the hope is the verdict will change the way Dorel does business and make car seats safer for toddlers all across the country.
“We hope this verdict will encourage not just this defendant, but all car seat manufacturers to make changes,” Cowden said. “The goal is to prevent this from happening to someone else’s child.”
Embry agreed, saying the jurors “absolutely tried to send a message” with the award.
In speaking with the jurors after the trial, “they unanimously spoke of how they hoped that this would encourage Dorel to get the message out to parents that toddlers are much safer in a rear-facing car seat,” he said.
Embry said he believed jurors were angered that “Dorel's own internal emails and documents showed that they estimated that toddlers under age 2 were as much as 75 percent more likely to suffer serious injury or death if they were placed in a forward-facing car seat, yet Dorel continued to sell forward-facing only car seats without including any warning to parents.”
“This was particularly egregious given that we had emails where Dorel executives were cautioning their own daughters not to place their toddlers in a forward-facing seat,” he said.
According to Embry, “Dorel tried to come into the courtroom and excuse their failure to warn by saying that they had now done a statistical analysis and toddlers are actually perfectly safe facing forward.”
But the jury “totally didn't buy that story,” he said.
“In fact, we showed that at the very time” the defendant's expert, Jeya Padmanaban, was on the stand stating that forward-facing seats were safe, “Dorel was still saying on its website that toddlers are five times safer in a rear-facing seat.”
Embry said the plaintiffs' attorneys showed the jury that Dorel's claim that toddlers weren't at risk “wasn't even believed by the company itself. Dorel had actually changed its warnings on recently manufactured seats but decided to not change the warning on older seats that were still being sold but set to be discontinued in the near future,” he said.
“In the words of one Dorel executive, Mr. Terry Emerson, Dorel decided it wasn't worth `spending the resources' to update those warnings,” Embry said.
According to Cowden, the verdict makes clear that if “a car seat company is aware of an increased danger associated with one of their car seats, they must warn parents. They cannot put dollars and cents over the safety of children,” he said.
But Schwartz said Dorel designed the car seat “with one overriding objective—the safety of our children.”
The company said it spends millions of dollars annually in its product development and test centers to “ensure that our products are of the highest quality.”
Dorel said it expects that its arguments will result in the judgment being overturned entirely or significantly reduced.
Should the appeal be unsuccessful, Dorel said its current insurance coverage would limit the company’s exposure to not more than $6 million, and that it will record the potential impact in Dorel's interim second quarter financial statements.
“Dorel has a strong balance sheet and its financial position will not be materially affected by this case,” it said.
Hossley & Embry represents the plaintiffs.
Dorel was represented by Schiff Hardin.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Kaufman in Washington at bkaufman
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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