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Essex County

This was a products liability action in which the plaintiff driver, aged 24 at the time of the accident and 36 at trial, contended that the ________ Volkswagen he was driving was defectively designed since the rear of the seat would collapse upon impact with a force equaling as little as 30 mph. The plaintiff further contended that the defendant failed to provide warnings relating to the need to wear seat belts. The plaintiff contended that as a result, he was propelled into the rear of the interior of the car when he was struck from behind, sustaining cervical fractures which rendered him a quadriplegic. The evidence revealed that while the plaintiff was traveling northbound through a construction area on the Garden State Parkway, his vehicle suddenly crossed over the center median of the parkway into the southbound lane, spun about in traffic and was struck in the rear while facing south. The plaintiff had, in a previous action and while represented by prior counsel, named the DOT, contractor and driver of the vehicle striking him in the rear as defendants and this aspect settled. There were no issues relating to the negligence of the other driver or of the allegedly dangerous construction site before the jury and there was no evidence as to the reason the plaintiff initially crossed into the southbound lane.

The plaintiff’s expert engineer contended that the seat could collapse when the vehicle was struck at impact speeds as low as 30 mph and maintained that the seat should have been more rigid.

The plaintiff contended that as a result, the plaintiff was propelled backwards into the rear seat and struck the rear right interior of the car when the other car struck him in the rear.

The defendant’s engineer/accident reconstruction expert maintained that the seat was properly designed to give way at an impact of 30 mph and contended that such a design was desirable to provide energy absorption. According to the expert, a seat which is more rigid could easily cause injury by propelling an occupant upward, striking the interior roof, or causing injury as a result of an impact with the seat itself. The defendant also contended that the seat met all government standards of the time.

The plaintiff’s engineer indicated that he was the former Administrator for the Office of Defect Investigation at the U.S.

Dept. of Transportation, and that he had conducted extensive crash testing for the federal government. The expert testified that he had advised his superiors that the government standards relating to the seats were weak and should be changed and that he was met with bureaucratic resistance. The defendant was precluded from introducing evidence that all manufacturers provide similar seats and that the Office of Defect Investigation itself had concluded that the seat was properly designed. The defendant also contended that the force of the plaintiff’s spinning car upon impact would heighten the forces significantly and that no seat could withstand the forces exerted in this accident. The plaintiff maintained that the defendant’s engineer/accident reconstruction expert and biomechanical engineer had testified extensively for the defendant and other auto manufacturers and maintained that their conclusions should, therefore, be suspect.

The defendant established that the plaintiff was not wearing his seat belt and contended that he was comparatively negligent and contributed to the extent of his injuries. The plaintiff’s biomechanical engineer contended that a seatbelt would probably have not prevented the incident since the plaintiff would probably have slid under the belt as he moved toward the rear of the interior. The defendant’s expert maintained that the tension on the legs next to the bottom portion of the seat, which did not collapse, would have prevented the plaintiff from being propelled into the back seat and introduced videotapes which depicted dummies being so restrained. The plaintiff contended that in view of the defendant’s strenuous arguments that the plaintiff should have worn a seatbelt, the defendant obviously should have provided warnings advising the use of seatbelts and of the serious consequences of failing to wear a belt. The plaintiff established that no such warnings were supplied. The plaintiff’s expert engineer contended that at the time of the accident, only 10-15% of the population wore seat belts and the plaintiff contended that such warnings should have been provided.

The plaintiff, who suffered cervical fractures, was rendered a quadriplegic and is confined to a wheelchair and bed. The plaintiff contended that he is virtually helpless and that he requires extensive attendant care. The evidence disclosed that the plaintiff has some limited use of one arm and that he utilizes a special device to brush his teeth and turn the pages of a book. The plaintiff, who was divorced after the accident, indicated that he had attempted to live at home for sometime after the separation, but was required to enter a nursing home because the attendants were at time unreliable and would not always arrive as scheduled. The plaintiff’s economist offered projections as to future lost wages from which the jury could infer approximately $________. There was no evidence of costs of past and future care submitted since any such bills would be paid by PIP. The jury found for the plaintiff and rendered a gross award of $________. They further found that the plaintiff was 25% responsible for his injuries for failing to wear a seat belt.

The Court subsequently struck the 25% finding of plaintiff responsibility, holding that the plaintiff could not be found negligent for failing to utilize a safety device regarding which there were no warnings. The defendant has filed an appeal.

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