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ARTICLE ID 50377

$________ GROSS REDUCED BY 50% COMPARATIVE NEGLIGENCE - PRODUCT LIABILITY - DESIGN DEFECT OF `89 FORD ESCORT - INSUFFICIENTLY STRONG ROOF STRUCTURE - PLAINTIFF DRIVER SUFFERS QUADRIPLEGIA AFTER CAR ROLLS OVER UPON ENTERING GRASSY MEDIAN FOLLOWING DRIVER'S LOSS OF CONTROL.

Madison Parish, Louisiana

In this action, the male plaintiff driver of a ________ Ford Escort contended that the vehicle was defectively designed because of inadequate roof strength pursuant to the Louisiana Products Liability Act, La. R.S. 9: ________, et. seq. The plaintiff maintained that as a result, he suffered cervical fractures causing permanent quadriplegia after his automobile rolled over twice. The defendant denied that the vehicle was defectively designed. The defendant further maintained that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused as the plaintiff "dove" into the roof during the rollover and that the strength of the roof was not causative of these injuries. The defendant finally contended that the cause of the incident and the subsequent injuries was the negligent failure of the plaintiff to maintain control of the vehicle in the first instance.

The plaintiff testified that as he was traveling down the interstate when he encountered traffic which had slowed to some extent because of rubber-necking related to the beginning stages of a car fire on the opposite side of the highway. The plaintiff related that he momentarily turned his head to look at the car on fire and that as he turned back, he realized that a car was bearing down on him and that he lost control as he attempted to take evasive action.

The plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert indicated that the plaintiff’s automobile entered the median grassy area, which contained a six-degree downward slope at 34 mph and rolled over twice. The plaintiff’s proofs reflected that the portion of the car that trailed the leading edge of the rollover would sustain the greatest roof damage. In this case, the passenger’s side rolled first and the crush damage on the opposite side was extensive with metal deformation reaching the headrest, virtually eliminating the occupant space on the driver’s side. The portion of the roof on the passenger side sustained relatively little damage and the plaintiff’s passenger did not suffer significant injuries in the accident. The plaintiff’s expert biomechanical engineer testified that he had personally investigated more than a thousand accidents and that in approximately 90% of the rollover cases, the person situated under the portion of the roof with the greater crush damage nearly always sustained more serious injuries than the other occupant.

The defendant maintained that the primary cause of the plaintiff’s injuries was negligent operation of the vehicle by the plaintiff in the first instance and that the plaintiff was improperly attempting to place the blame on the automobile manufacturer. The plaintiff countered that although it would be appropriate to place some portion of the responsibility on the plaintiff, the plaintiff would not have suffered such catastrophic injuries if the vehicle had been designed appropriately and that the jury should not permit the manufacturer to avoid its own responsibility.

It was undisputed that the roof strength of the vehicle met all government regulations. The plaintiff argued, however, that such regulations constituted the minimal standards only and that compliance with these regulations did not equal the absence of a defective design.

The defendant’s automotive design/crashworthiness expert maintained that extensive testing has revealed that in a rollover, the maximum axial load that is placed on an occupant occurs before the roof strikes the ground. The defendant maintained, therefore, that the extent of crush damage to the roof was not related to the cervical fracture and resulting quadriplegia. The defendant’s expert played a series of videos before the jury to demonstrate that forces recorded by the test dummies clearly supported this defense position. The plaintiff denied that defendant’s contentions in this regard should be accepted. The plaintiff maintained that the jury should consider that test dummies are very different from human beings, do not have spinal cords, vertebrae, discs or the same curvature as a human spine and argued that the correlation advanced by the defendant should not be accepted.

The plaintiff’s biomechanics and occupant kinematics expert contended that in addition to axial loading, other forces, including forward and lateral flexion and sheer, relating to the point that the discs in the spinal cord begin to separate were involved in this accident and caused the plaintiff’s injuries. According to this expert, the crush damage and loss of occupant space was a direct cause of the cervical fracture, opining that the forces to which the plaintiff was subjected in the car would probably not be sufficient to cause the cervical fracture and resulting quadriplegia without significant roof crush.

The plaintiff’s automotive safety and vehicle crashworthiness expert maintained that only the first four to five inches of the more then 20-inch A-pillars were reinforced. This expert contended that the reinforcement should have extended the length of the pillar and maintained that this factor significantly contributed to the absence of adequate support. The plaintiff also presented an expert in mechanical and structural engineering who supported this position.

The plaintiff’s experts further contend that the "U-shape" or open design header that was situated between the windshield and the roof provided approximately three times less support than a so called "boxed" or closed header that has a strip of metal running along the top. The plaintiff contended that the failure to incorporate such a feature on this vehicle also rendered it defective.

The evidence disclosed that shortly before the accident occurred, the plaintiff had completed his graduate studies in the field of foreign languages .The plaintiff’s vocational expert maintained that the plaintiff’s services would have been in high demand. The plaintiff contended that although he has continued his studies, completed his doctoral dissertation and interviewed for positions, he has been unable to obtain an offer for employment. The plaintiff’s vocational expert maintained that the plaintiff will probably not be able to obtain employment due to his disability.

The plaintiff presented a life care expert who discussed the cost of a life care plan. The plaintiff’s vocational and life care experts maintained that it would be appropriate to consider that present value would be offset by inflation. The vocational expert estimated that the plaintiff’s lost income would approximate $________ and the plaintiff’s life care expert projected approximately $________ in living care costs. The defendant’s economist denied that it was appropriate to use the so called "net zero" or total offset approach used by the plaintiff’s experts.

The jury found the automobile was defectively designed, assessed 50% liability against the manufacturer and 50% liability against the plaintiff. They then rendered gross awards of $________ for pain and suffering, $________ for loss of enjoyment of life, $________ for future lost wages, $________ in future costs of a life care plan and $________ in past medical bills. The parties had stipulated to $________ in past medical costs and the court increased the award by $________ on plaintiff’s motion for JNOV.

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