DaimlerChrysler Corp. has vowed to appeal a Memphis, Tenn., judge's decision that upholds a $48.8 million punitive damages verdict stemming from a fatal crash involving a 2000 Dodge Caravan.
The award came in what plaintiff's lawyer Jeremy Knowles of Alexander City, Ala., said was the nation's first offset frontal-impact case involving Chrysler's NS platform to go to trial.
Chrysler built minivans on the NS platform for the 1996-2001 model years.
Driver Vickie Mohr and her front-seat passenger died in July 2002 when their Caravan collided with a Jeep Cherokee whose driver had fallen asleep, according to the decision.
DaimlerChrysler Corp. disputed liability, but the jury awarded $9.5 million in compensatory damages: $4.3 million against the automaker and the balance against the responsible driver, Knowles said. The jury also imposed punitive damages against the automaker for failing to remedy alleged safety flaws before its faster-than-normal marketing of NS platform minivans.
Under Tennessee law, trial judges review all punitive damage verdicts before they can be finalized, Knowles said.
In his decision, District Judge Robert Childers cited testimony that Chrysler had dissolved its Minivan Safety Leadership Team when the team reported frustrations with the NS platform design and had altered the testing protocol required under the federal motor vehicle safety standard for occupant crash protection. Such testimony is "evidence of the objectionable and reprehensible nature of the company's conduct in the manufacture and distribution of the NS platform minivan," Childers said.
The judge also cited evidence that Chrysler "chose to move forward with production" without correcting known defects and failed to change the platform design from 1996 to 2000 to provide additional frontal offset crash protection.
He didn't review the compensatory damages portion of the verdict.
In a statement, DaimlerChrysler Assistant General Counsel Lou Ann Van Der Wiele called the decision disappointing but said, "This is only the first step in the post-trial process."
Van Der Wiele said the size of the punitive damage award violates due process restrictions set by the U.S. Supreme Court. "DaimlerChrysler Corp. plans to aggressively pursue its appellate options," she said.
Plaintiff's attorney Knowles said the automaker had settled other frontal offset impact crash cases.