The Texas Court of Appeals has overturned a $32 million award in a suit alleging that the seat belt on a 1991 Honda Civic was defectively designed.
The driver's estate failed to prove that a safer alternative design would have been feasible economically and technologically, the three-judge panel said.
There will be a further appeal, estate lawyer Warren Harris of Houston says.
In 1992, Karen Norman accidentally backed down a boat ramp into Galveston Bay while trying to back her car up to turn around, according to the court. She had a blood alcohol level of 0.17.
A passenger claimed to have crawled out the side window and heard Norman yell that she couldn't get out of her seat belt. But divers found Norman's body in the back seat and said all the windows were rolled up, including the one the passenger claimed to have escaped through.
The estate sued Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., alleging that the Civic's two-point passive restraint system was defectively designed and prevented Norman from escaping from the sinking car.
Honda denied any defect.
A Galveston County District Court jury assessed damages of $65 million, which were reduced in part as
excessive and in part to reflect Norman's share of responsibility.
The Texas Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the verdict, saying the state's experts had failed to prove that a safer alternative to the Honda's restraint system was available.
For example, Judge Evelyn Keyes said there was insufficient evidence that a timer-controlled mouse proposed by one expert would be safer.
Nor was there enough evidence that a right-hip release system or a two-release button design would be safer alternatives to the Civic's shoulder-release system.
But Harris says there is enough evidence of an alternative restraint system already in use on comparable vehicles at the time, referring to a release mechanism used on Toyotas.
He also says Honda didn't appeal the jury's finding that the seat belt was unreasonably dangerous as designed.
Honda spokesman Jeffrey Smith declined to discuss the decision.
You can send e-mail to Eric Freedman at