A Florida appellate court has reinstated a proposed class-action lawsuit alleging defective design of the Gen-3 seat belt buckles used in 1993 and later Chrysler minivans and 1997-98 Dodge Dakotas and Durangos.
The claim that the value of the lead plaintiff's 1998 Grand Caravan was reduced because it was equipped with Gen-3 buckles is enough to allege "actual damages" under Florida's unfair trade practices law, the Court of Appeal held.
The plaintiff, Carolyn Collins, isn't required to show actual injury or death due to the purported defect, Judge Richard Orfinger said for the unanimous three-member panel. "We see no requirement (in the consumer protection law) that a defect manifest itself by failing to operate in an emergency or by causing injury."
DaimlerChrysler Corp. denies the buckles are defective. Spokeswoman Elaine Lutz said the company plans to ask the court to review its decision.
Lutz said the Collins suit and similar suits in Ohio and Texas are basically no-injury class actions brought by plaintiffs whose seat belts have not malfunctioned. Collins "has driven her vehicle safely for eight years," Lutz said. "She has never reported any malfunction with the seat belt system."
DaimlerChrysler phased out the Gen-3 seat belt in June 2003, Lutz said.
The lawsuit claims that the Gen-3 seat belt buckles fail to minimize the possibility of an accidental release and are unfit for use. The suit also claims that Collins based her decision to buy her Grand Caravan partly on advertising that Chrysler's vehicles were safe.
Collins' lawyer, Laura Denault of Orlando, Fla., said the suit seeks replacement of defective belts, payment for loss of use of the vehicles, and an injunction against further use of the Gen-3 buckle on behalf of all Florida purchasers and lessees of those vehicles, plus attorney fees.
Collins herself is seeking damages based on the Grand Caravan's alleged diminished market value and for her lost use of the vehicle while the seat belts were being replaced or repaired.
An Orange County Circuit Court judge dismissed the case without trial, ruling Collins failed to show any loss eligible for compensation.
Reviving the suit, the Court of Appeal said the difference in market value between a product as promised and the product as delivered fits the consumer protection law's definition of actual damages. The court didn't decide whether to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit. Denault said that question goes to the lower-court judge.
You may e-mail Eric Freedman at