In an unusual move, a California judge has ordered an unsuccessful plaintiff in a product liability case to reimburse the defense for more than $284,000 in expert-witness and court costs.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Fell imposed the sanction after plaintiff Ishkhan Sahagian rejected a defense offer to dismiss the case without penalty.
In March 1998, Sahagian was driving his 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320 sport-utility in Huntington Beach, Calif., when he collided with another car. Four vehicles were involved in the crash.
He sued Mercedes-Benz USA Inc., DaimlerChrysler and the dealership, alleging that the front and side airbag systems were defective and had caused him to suffer severe and permanent brain damage and psychological injuries. DaimlerChrysler and the dealership were dismissed from the case.
Mercedes-Benz USA denied any defects and disputed the extent of Sahagian's injuries. It also asserted Sahagian was responsible for the accident.
'The ML320 performed remarkably well in this severe accident,' said defense lawyer Timothy Smith of Sindelfingen, Germany.
'Sahagian's own negligence caused his injuries,' Smith said, 'and the safety systems in his M class actually prevented him from being more severely injured or even killed. Sahagian, his lawyer and their experts had unrealistic expectations all around.'
Mercedes-Benz USA made what California law calls an 'offer of compromise.' In that offer, it agreed to waive its right to recoup defense costs if Sahagian agreed to drop the claims without payment.
Sahagian refused and demanded a $350,000 settlement, according to the other defense lawyer, Lisa Knipsel of San Francisco.
On the day of trial, Sahagian dismissed his case. Mercedes-Benz USA then requested $284,009 in sanctions: $273,260 in expert witness fees and the balance in expenses.
Smith said defense experts 'affirmatively disproved every one of the plaintiff's defect theories early on. The plaintiff forced MBUSA to defend itself in court at great expense through the day of trial in a meritless case.'
Knipsel said her client intends to collect the award. 'We're going after the costs,' she said.
Sahagian's lawyer did not return phone calls seeking comment.