A California jury ordered Toyota Motor Corp. to pay $12.5 million for being responsible for debilitating lap-only seat belt injuries in a 2010 crash.
The Monterey, Calif., crash happened Feb. 21, 2010, when the victim, Chelsie Hill was 17. Now she is 22 and needs a wheelchair. The jury rendered its verdict on Friday in Monterey after a four-week trial, the plaintiff’s lawyer said in a statement Monday.
Aaron Corn, who was 18 and under the influence of alcohol, crashed into a tree while driving 30 mph, the statement said. The jury determined Corn was 5 percent responsible for Hill’s injuries and Hill was 5 percent responsible for getting in a car with a drunken driver.
Hill was riding in the rear center seat of a 1996 Toyota 4Runner, the only seat in the car without a shoulder belt. She wore the seatbelt, but the lap belt alone wasn’t enough to protect her in the crash. Hill suffered a spinal cord injury when she “jackknifed” over the belt, the statement said, injuring her abdomen and lower spinal column and leaving her paraplegic.
The jury ruled after four hours of deliberations, the statement said.
Dr. Robert Lieberson, the neurosurgeon who took care of Hill the night of the crash, said that the belt “virtually decapitated” Hill at her midsection. Lieberson said Hill was held together by her skin, the statement said.
The $12.5 million award would go mostly toward Hill’s past and future medical expenses, with $4 million awarded for general pain and suffering, her attorney, Bob Rosenthal told Automotive News.
Toyota said Hill’s injuries were not because of a vehicle flaw.
"We sympathize with Ms. Hill and anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles,” Toyota spokeswoman Carly Shaffner said today. “While we respect the jury’s time and consideration, we remain confident that Ms. Hill’s injuries were not the result of a defect in the 1996 Toyota 4Runner. We will carefully study the record."
Toyota argued that such a serious injury was due to improper use of the belt and the brutality of the crash.
“Even if the lap-shoulder belt provides an added measure of protection in certain accidents, it’s not going to provide any protection for somebody who is not going to use it properly,” Toyota attorney Vincent Galvin said at the trial.
Physicians who treated Hill that night said that her injuries and scars showed proper use of the lap-only seatbelt, the statement said.
Rosenthal said that Toyota put the least safe and least expensive restraint system in the seat. He said he would not settle the case for less than the jury's verdict award.
“The jury was only off for four hours, which indicated to me that they were well convinced to Toyota’s liability,” he said.
The jury watched videos comparing crash impacts with lap-only and lap-shoulder belts, the statement said. Test dummies violently jackknifed over the lap-only belts, while dummies in lap-shoulder belts stayed upright, the statement said.
During a lawsuit against Mazda Motor Corp. in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court said that automakers can be sued for not providing seats with a shoulder strap. This decision arose from a crash nine years earlier when a woman was killed in a 1993 minivan.
Lap-only seats were allowed before 2007, but the cars that met standards when they were manufactured would no longer be omitted from the regulation. More than 1 million vehicles on the road in 2008, a year after the federal regulation, had at least one lap-only seat belt, Hill’s lawyer said.
“The tragedy underlying all these cases is that even though Toyota and other manufacturers have known for decades that lap-only belts are needlessly dangerous, they have failed to recall or warn about those existing older vehicles still on the road, equipped with lap belts,” Rosenthal said in the statement.
He added: “These older vehicles are ticking time-bombs being driven by young drivers and young families, the very people most likely to put someone in that rear center seat.”