An appeals court in New Jersey has ordered a new trial in a product liability suit alleging that the rear-seat, two-point lap belt in a 1988 Nissan Sentra was defective.
The trial judge gave incorrect instructions to the jury, resulting in an inconsistent verdict in which the belt was found defective but not the cause of a passenger's injuries, the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court ruled.
Magdalena Truchan was in the Sentra driven by a friend who, while drunk, smashed into a utility pole.
Neither the driver nor the front-seat passenger was hurt severely, but Truchan's spinal column virtually was ripped in half, according to trial testimony.
She sued Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. and Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. in Middle-sex County Superior Court for defectively designing the lap belt and failing to warn passengers of the potential for enhanced injuries if the belt is worn above the lower abdomen.
Truchan settled her claims against the owner and driver of the car, then went to trial against Nissan.
Her experts testified that Nissan had installed the seat belt anchorages in an asymmetrical manner, causing the lap restraint to ride up too high on the abdomen, contrary to federal safety regulations.
Her experts also testified that either a three-point shoulder harness system or a safer two-point belt would have prevented her injuries.
However, defense experts concluded that Truchan, who had been drinking at a party and a bar before the accident, had been in a slumped, tilting position with the lap belt positioned over her navel when the crash happened.
They also told the jury that the belt satisfied all federal, state and local safety standards and that she would have suffered the same injuries even if the car had been equipped with the type of shoulder harness system recommended by Truchan's experts.
In its verdict, the jury found that the seat belt system had been designed defectively but that the defect was not the cause of Truchan's injuries. It awarded no damages.
The presiding judge then granted Truchan's motion for a new trial.
The Appellate Division upheld that decision, saying the jury instructions were unclear, producing an inconsistent verdict.
On a second issue, the panel said Nissan can offer evidence at the new trial that Truchan was intoxicated, 'both to prove that she was in a slumped position at the time of impact, and to show that she would not have heeded warnings pertaining to the dangers posed by the seat belt system had they been given.'
Nissan North America spokesman Gerry Tschopp said the company and its lawyers are reviewing the decision.
Truchan's lawyers did not return phone calls seeking comment.