A federal judge in New York has overturned a $750,000 jury verdict in a fatal airbag deployment case, ruling that the 5-year-old victim's estate failed to prove that Chrysler Corp., now DaimlerChrysler Corp., could have used safer alternative designs in the 1995 Dodge Caravan.
The December 1998 verdict had been the first time a jury had found in favor of plaintiffs in an airbag suit concerning a child's death.
In throwing out the award, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff said the estate of Michael Castro did not provide the jury with 'any reasonable basis on which to conclude that any of the proposed alternatives was safer than the allegedly defective airbag.'
A lawyer for the estate said an appeal is under consideration.
In August 1995, the boy was sitting unbelted and unrestrained in the front passenger seat when the minivan his father had rented was involved in what the judge described as a 'relatively minor' two-vehicle head-on collision. The right front bag struck the boy in the head.
Both sides agreed that the force of impact had a barrier equivalent velocity of 9 to 12 mph, enough to deploy the airbags. The other occupants were injured only slightly.
DESIGN AT ISSUE
The lawsuit went to trial on a theory of defective design, which DaimlerChrysler denied.
During the trial, the estate's expert witness testified that there were three safer, feasible alternatives to the 8-to-14-mph threshold range selected by DaimlerChrysler:
1. Raising the no-fire point from 8 mph to at least 12 mph
2. Setting an ideal threshold range of 15 to 20 mph
3. Eliminating airbags entirely.
The jury assessed damages at $1.5 million but reduced the amount by half, apparently deciding the boy should have been wearing a seat belt.
In his decision, Rakoff granted DaimlerChrysler's motion to set aside the verdict and dismiss the lawsuit. He called airbags 'the proverbial mixed blessing' that had saved more than 4,700 lives through Oct. 1, but 'killed 146 people, of whom 84 were out-of-position children.'
'To be sure,' the judge said, 'those deaths could have been avoided if the victims had worn seat belts, but part of the need for airbags derives from the unpalatable but undeniable fact that a significant number of people simply refuse to wear such belts.'
The estate 'utterly failed to adduce any competent evidence that any of (its expert's) three proposed alternatives was safer than the defendant's design,' he said. 'The estate failed to provide any evidence from which the jury could reasonably have concluded that the number of lives saved or injuries avoided by adopting any of these alternative designs would be greater than the corresponding number of lives lost or injuries sustained as a result of such adoption.'
DaimlerChrysler Assistant General Counsel Kenneth Gluckman said, 'Judge Rakoff found that the plaintiff failed to produce any scientific evidence to contradict the testimony and common-sense conclusion that airbags overall save many more lives than they cost.
'Judge Rakoff's decision not only vindicates DaimlerChrysler but clearly establishes the principle that airbags must be used properly to save lives. The tragic truth of this case is that the difference between life and death for the child was the fact that he was not wearing his seat belt.'
Keith Silverstein, a lawyer for the estate, criticized Rakoff, saying: 'The judge has usurped the basic role of the jury to decide on the facts and evidence presented. The judge essentially injected his personal opinion on the merits or lack of merits of airbags.'