WASHINGTON - The first jury verdict in a lawsuit over a child's death from a deploying airbag suggests that automakers face a potentially huge liability for damages from a rush of such suits in the future.
A New York jury on Dec. 4 found the former Chrysler Corp. liable for $750,000 in damages in the death of 5-year-old Michael Crespo, killed by an airbag while riding in a Chrysler minivan involved in a low-speed crash.
But even though it is the first, that verdict does not mean automakers will lose all similar, future cases, legal experts say. About 30 such cases are pending in courts across the country.
Each child's death from an airbag is a tragedy, but 'it is not a slam-dunk design case,' said Andrew Popper, professor at American University Law School in Washington, D.C.
'We have a ways to go with the small-child-airbag case scenario. They are going to go different ways,' he said of the verdicts.
In fact, even in the first case, U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff and the jury were receptive to some automaker arguments about the limits of responsibility.
Rakoff threw out the plaintiff's claim that Chrysler - now DaimlerChrysler Corp., the North American unit of DaimlerChrysler AG - failed to provide an adequate warning of airbag dangers in the rented 1995 Dodge Caravan in which the boy died.
Moreover, the jury decided that, even though it felt Michael's estate was entitled to $1.5 million for his death, DaimlerChrysler should pay just half. Apparently jurors cut the award because the boy was not secured with a seat belt or in a safety seat, but they did not say specifically that the father or driver bore half the blame.
While unhappy with the outcome, Daim-lerChrysler associate general counsel Ken Gluckman conceded, 'This was a jury trying to do the right thing in an individual case.'
The only issue put to the jury was whether the vehicle's speed at the time of the crash was too low for the airbag to have gone off, not whether the airbag deployed with too much force or otherwise malfunctioned.
The minivan, going down a steep grade at 9 to 12 mph on a private drive in Puerto Rico, collided head-on with another vehicle.
An expert witness for the plaintiffs testified that airbag deployments should begin in the 15 to 20 mph range.
But the 'correct' threshold speed for airbag deployment is an elusive issue, because no standard exists. Automakers determine for themselves the speed at which airbags should deploy, and the federal government repeatedly has declined to set a minimum.
Indeed, federal safety standards require only that manufacturers provide a certain level of protection to adult occupants in 30 mph crashes.
DaimlerChrysler's Gluckman contended that industry practice is for airbags to begin deploying at crash speeds of 8 to 14 mph. Thus, the jury's decision would mean that nearly every airbag is legally defective, he said, 'and that is absurd.'
He said DaimlerChrysler will ask Rakoff to set aside the jury's decision.