A California Superior Court jury has found Toyota Motor Corp. liable for causing devastating injuries to a young woman in a crash that occurred in Monterey over four and a half years ago in a verdict rendered late Friday.
After hearing evidence from both sides during a four-week trial, the jury awarded Chelsie Hill $12 million dollars in damages after only four hours of deliberations.
Hill was a teenager at the time of the crash, which was caused by a teen driver under the influence of alcohol. She was riding in the rear center seat of a 1996 Toyota 4Runner – the only seat in the vehicle equipped with a lap-only belt, which Hill was wearing.
Three of the four other occupants in the 30 mph, single-vehicle crash were wearing lap-shoulder belts, while the fourth passenger in the right rear seat was unrestrained. The four other occupants suffered relatively minor injuries. Hill’s spinal cord injury was caused by forces concentrated on her abdomen and lower spinal column when she jackknifed over the lap belt. The injuries rendered her paraplegic.
According to Dr. Robert Lieberson, the neurosurgeon who treated the young woman on the night of the crash, the belt virtually “decapitated” her at the midsection. She was “held together by her skin,” he told the jury.
“I really thought I was going to have her die right in front of me,” he said.
During the trial Hill’s attorney, Bob Rosenthal, presented evidence that lap-only belts were needlessly hazardous because they could cause injuries, such as Hill’s paraplegia, that would be prevented by lap-shoulder belts.
Rosenthal also demonstrated that Toyota had known this at the time it designed the 1996 4Runner but chose instead to equip its rear center seat with a lap-only belt.
Toyota argued that Hill’s injuries were the result of her improperly wearing the lap-only belt, and due to the severity of the crash.
Physicians who treated the young woman the night of the crash testified that her injuries and scars were consistent with proper use of the belt. In arguing that Hill’s injuries were essentially her own fault, Toyota attorney Vincent Galvin told the jury that the young woman had been “indifferent to the use of the belt…she didn’t think of it in terms of safety” on the night of the crash.”
He also told the jury that Toyota’s decision not to put a lap-shoulder belt in the rear center seat was justified by the fact that “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.”
Rosenthal attacked Toyota’s disregard for safety in the years preceding the manufacture of the involved 1996 vehicle. He convinced the jury that Toyota, despite knowing the dangers of lap belts, demonstrated a complete disregard for the safety of occupants in the rear center seating position.
“Toyota had the technology, and chose not to use it, putting the least safe and least expensive restraint system in that seat,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal asked the jury to “think about who is most responsible for her paralysis, who put that seat belt there, who made the decision to disregard anyone sitting in that rear center seat.”
During the trial the jury was shown videos of impact tests comparing lap-only and lap-shoulder belts. Test dummies in the lap-only belt impacts jackknifed violently over the belts. Those in the lap-shoulder belts remained upright and experienced far less injurious force on their midsections and spinal columns.
Following the verdict, Rosenthal noted that the Hill case is the most recent in a line of court cases, dating from the 1980s, involving injuries caused by lap-only belts in motor vehicle crashes.
“The tragedy underlying this case,” he said, “is that Chelsie Hill will be severely disabled for life because Toyota decided to save a few dollars by not installing a lap-shoulder belt in the rear center seat of the 1996 4Runner. 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. 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.”
New cars are now required by federal safety standards to be equipped with rear center seat lap-shoulder belts. The requirement took effect starting in 2005, more than three decades after research had first demonstrated the hazards of lap-only belts in crashes.
Millions of vehicles manufactured prior to 2005 with lap-only belts in the rear center seat remain registered and on the road.
Representing Chelsie Hill in the trial were Rosenthal and Andrew Kreeft, of the Bohnen, Rosenthal and Kreeft law firm in Monterey. Representing Toyota were four attorneys, including lead trial counsel Galvin and James Halbrooks of the national firm of Bowman and Brooke.
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