$259 million award tossed in DCX minivan latch case

Voided verdict

At issue: Court dumps $259 million award in minivan latch case.

Where it stands: DCX wins new trial, limit on damages.

A federal appeals court has tossed out a record $259 million verdict against DaimlerChrysler Corp. in a wrongful death suit involving a rear liftgate latch on a 1985 Dodge Caravan.

The court found no legal grounds for punitive damages and said the 6-year-old victim’s estate can recover only compensatory damages for injuries related to the allegedly defective latch.

In addition, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said DaimlerChrysler could offer evidence at a new trial that Sergio Jimenez was not belted at the time of the April 1994 crash, something the defense was not allowed to do at the original trial.

The boy’s father bought the used Caravan in 1994. Shortly after, his wife ran a red light and was struck in the rear. The boy was ejected through the rear liftgate, which opened during the crash.

The estate contended the latch was designed defectively.

DaimlerChrysler denied liability, arguing the Caravan was designed at a time when no federal safety standard applied to latches on rear liftgates. It did admit it had not conducted crash tests to determine how the latch would perform in a crash and that the latch was not as strong as those of competing minivans available soon afterward.

At trial in federal court in Charleston, S.C., the judge ruled South Carolina law prohibits evidence that seat belts were not used.

The trial ended with an award of $9 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. It is believed to be the largest award in a rear latch defect case.

In reversing the punitive damages, the appeals court found no evidence of “conscious wrongdoing” by the former Chrysler Corp. in pioneering and designing the Caravan. It also rejected the estate’s argument that advertising for the Caravan had misrepresented the vehicle’s safety.

Court limits damages

In allowing a new trial, the court said the estate’s potential damages will be limited to any injuries the boy suffered because of the alleged defect, and not for injuries that resulted from the original collision.

The court noted that DaimlerChrysler had not sought to admit evidence that the boy was negligent by not wearing his seat belt. Instead, the automaker had sought to show that the boy would have been thrown about the vehicle’s interior and injured and that DaimlerChrysler would not be responsible for those injuries even if the vehicle had a nondefective latch.

The court also said, “The prejudice (from excluding seat belt evidence) was compounded by the affirmative mistaken representation to the jury by the estate’s counsel that Sergio was seat belted when, in fact, he was not.”

Estate seeks rehearing

The estate has asked the panel for a rehearing, said one of its lawyers, Richard Simpson of Washington, D.C. “There are multiple factual errors in the opinion, we believe,” he said.

DaimlerChrysler Corp. Associate General Counsel Ken Gluckman said: “The appeals court struck a blow for common sense and fairness in the courtroom. This ruling corrects mistakes made by the lower court and grants our request for a new trial based on relevant evidence.”

You can reach Eric Freedman at freedma5@msu.edu

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