An auto manufacturer was ordered to pay $1 million to a man who was catastrophically and permanently injured in a rollover crash when his seat belt failed to protect him. He was rendered quadriplegic, though has retained some limited use of his hands through therapy and a nerve transplant.
However, after the close of the trial, the judge granted defendant auto maker’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, finding the evidence insufficient to support a plaintiff win. Plaintiff appealed this JML ruling, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed, reinstating the jury verdict, but allowing for a new trial on the issue of damages.
According to court records, it was five years ago when plaintiff, driving two of his sons and a group of other boys home from a Boy Scout camp, was seriously injured when he struck a boat and trailer towed by a pickup truck. The initial impact didn’t cause any severe damage, but then the sport utility vehicle he was driving overturned.
It happened at a relatively low speed, and while plaintiff (a medical doctor) was wearing his seat belt, he still slid far enough that his head struck the roof of the vehicle. He broke his neck, severed his spinal cord and is no quadriplegic.
Plaintiff later filed a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the vehicle, alleging strict liability, negligent design and failure to warn. He sought compensation for past and future damages, pain and suffering and medical expenses.
There was a multi-week trial held last September, with expert witnesses for the plaintiff testifying the seat belt lacked a pretensioner, which is a device that activates in a crash and removes the slack, keeping the passenger firmly in place. Evidence was also presented showing the auto manufacturers failed to test for how the seat belt would perform in a rollover crash.
There was no dispute as to whether this evidence was true, rather the question raised by defense was how significant this information was.
After plaintiff rested his case, defense moved for judgment as a matter of law, which the trial court at first denied. The matter went before a jury, and after deliberation, found the auto manufacturer was negligent for failing to test the van’s seat belt system and that this negligent failure was the cause of plaintiff’s serious injuries. The jury did not find the auto maker was strictly liable. Plaintiff would recover $1 million – all for past damages, none for future. His wife recovered nothing on her claim of loss of consortium.
The trial court granted plaintiff’s post-trial motion for a new trial on damages, finding it “shockingly inadequate.” However, the court also granted a judgment as a matter of law on the issue of failure to test because another of the jury’s findings – that there was no defect – rendered an insufficient basis for a finding of failure to test.
The federal appeals court disagreed with trial court’s reasoning for its judgment as a matter of law, finding there was a sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to reach the conclusion it did. However, it affirmed the grant of a new trial on the issue of damages. It’s highly plausible a new jury could award plaintiff much more.
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Bavlsik v. General Motors, Aug. 31, 2017, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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