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U.S. District, Eastern District of Pa.

The plaintiff, age 19 at the time, filed this product liability action in federal court on diversity jurisdiction alleging that defective design of a seat belt in a ________ Isuzu Trooper II, along with the propensity for the vehicle to roll over, rendered her a paraplegic after an accident allowed her to come in contact with the roof of the vehicle. The defendant car manufacturer asserted that the vehicle was stable with no handling difficulties, that the plaintiff was intoxicated at the time and that her injuries resulted from a "slam down" impact, not from any defect of the seat belt system.

The plaintiff testified from a wheelchair that she was driving a ________ Isuzu Trooper II owned by her mother when she swerved left to avoid a slow-moving vehicle in the right lane and then turned sharply back to the right, causing the Trooper to roll over and plunge some ________ feet down an embankment leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. The motorist who released the plaintiff from her seat belt testified that she was hanging by the seat belt and was choking while the vehicle was on its side. An emergency medical technician who arrived at the scene shortly after the plaintiff was released from the seat belt testified that he found the plaintiff with the bottom half of her torso in the passenger foot-well area and her feet extending out of the passenger side window and that the feet of a passenger in the vehicle were on top of the plaintiff. Several other witnesses testified that the plaintiff did not appear intoxicated at the time of the accident.

The plaintiff’s expert injury epidemiologist analyzed Fatal Accident Reporting System data to conclude that the Isuzu Trooper II has a higher propensity to roll over in single vehicle accidents than ordinary passenger car vehicles, and a former federal Department of Transportation official testified that Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards applicable to utility vehicles such as the Isuzu Trooper II, include a requirement that the vehicles be crashworthy and be equipped with seat belts to prevent injury. The plaintiff’s expert engineer testified that testing conducted on the Isuzu Trooper II seat belts, including computer simulations to identify the performance of the seat belt, revealed that the seat belt would not hold the occupant securely to the seat, but instead would allow the occupant to come towards the roof during any roll over event. The system used by the Isuzu Trooper was an emergency locking retractor with no security or lock across the seat belt portion of the continuous loop system and was located on the floor and in the "B-pillar" of the vehicle, according to the plaintiff’s engineer.

The plaintiff also asserted that there were at least four different seat belt systems available, one of which was in use in other Isuzu vehicles which could have prevented the injury. All of the systems were brought in front of the jury and demonstrated either by videotape or by models. The systems included a tilt- lock-latch-plate system, a pretensioner, an automatic locking retractor, coupled with an emergency locking retractor and an emergency locking retractor located in a different position, to wit, on the seat, rather than on the floor.

The plaintiff’s treating orthopedic surgeon testified that the plaintiff sustained a cervical subluxation at C-3,C-4 and a paralyzing injury at thoracic vertebra 12 and Lumbar 1 and opined that the force causing the injury would have been transmitted up or down the spine. A bio-mechanical engineer testified for the plaintiff that the force from contact at the top of the spine when the plaintiff hit the roof of the vehicle caused the injury in the thoracic region. The plaintiff’s expert economist, vocational rehabilitation psychologist, physiatrist and social worker testified that the plaintiff’s future medical costs reduced to current value totaled approximately $________, future lost earnings totaled between $________ and $________ and past medicals were $________.

The defendant car manufacturer’s project manager testified that the Trooper II was developed and designed with all applicable safety standards in mind and maintained that all standards of crashworthiness and seat belt design had been met. The defendant’s expert engineer testified that the roof of the vehicle was of sufficient strength to sustain average roll over impact without collapse and a second engineer testified that the vehicle did not have a propensity to roll over easily, but possessed stable handling characteristics for a vehicle of its kind. The defendant’s accident reconstruction expert testified that computer simulations of the accident established that the plaintiff lost control of the vehicle and, essentially, drove off the embankment.

The defendant’s expert toxicologist testified that at the time of treatment, a sample of plaintiff’s blood contained a .03 blood alcohol level which would translate to a .06 blood alcohol level at the time of the operation of the vehicle. The toxicologist opined that the effect of the alcohol in combination with other factors, such as reduced circadian rhythms in the early morning hours when the accident occurred, would have rendered the plaintiff incapable of safe driving. A defense social worker testified that the plaintiff was capable of finding full-time employment following the accident.

The defendant’s expert neurosurgeon testified that the plaintiff’s injury was caused by transmittal of force up the spine through the seat from a slam down of the vehicle not from the top down as alleged by the plaintiff’s experts. The neurosurgeon also opined that the plaintiff did not sustain a cervical subluxation, as alleged. The defendant’s bio-mechanical engineer concurred that the plaintiff’s thoracic injury must have been caused by a slam down and, therefore, did not involve use of the seat belt.

After a nine day trial, the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded a net verdict of $________, including $________ for past and future pain, suffering, etc.; $________ for future medical care; $________ for past medical expenses and $________ for loss of future earning capacity.

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