The product liability lawsuit, Christensen v. Alaska Sales & Service, Inc., highlights the very real problem of vehicle defects, and how the failure of vehicle systems can cause crashes or result in their being far more serious.
Just in October, unsafe vehicles and vehicle parts have resulted in a host of recalls. Those include:
- 4.7 million vehicles recalled for defective Takata airbags after at least four people died when the inflator mechanisms in the bag ruptured, spraying passengers with fragments of metal;
- 23,000 Suzuki motorcycles recalled for gears that miss during shifting;
- 45,500 trucks and sport utility vehicles recalled for floor mats that interfere with pedals;
- 300,000 vehicles recalled for loose toe adjuster links with the potential to result in loss of vehicle control;
- 90,000 vehicles recalled for corroded hood latches, which can cause the hood to open unexpectedly while the vehicle is in motion.
Our product liability attorneys recognize that any of these issues has the potential to result in very real danger to motorists, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. The problem is that not every hazard in a vehicle is obvious to operators, and despite dozens of recalls issued each month, many are only initiated after a problem has resulted in serious injury or death.
In the Christensen case, before the Alaska Supreme Court, the vehicle in question, a Buick, was purchased by the plaintiffs (husband and wife) in 2004 from the defendant. Four years later, the wife was driving on a highway when she collided with two moose. There were no witnesses to the crash other than the wife. She called the police immediately, and photos of the vehicle were taken. She also called her husband.
When he arrived, she told him she felt nauseous, and he noticed a red mark on her forehead. She couldn’t recall the details of the crash and didn’t know whether she’d hit her head in the car. In the days that followed, she reported feeling dizzy and light-headed. Her speech became broken. She started to experience balance problems and fell repeatedly. As her symptoms worsened, she sought medical treatment. It was there she was diagnosed with bilateral brain damage.
Since that time, she has been continuously treated for mobility problems and continues to struggle with short-term memory and speech problems.
Her husband took the vehicle to a repair shop, and it was there the mechanic posited the seat belt did not work properly in the crash. In fact, both the driver and passenger seat belts were malfunctioning, he said.
The husband contacted the dealership, which refused to pay to repair the seat belts. His auto insurer paid for the replacements.
The plaintiff later filed suit against the dealership, asserting that the seat belt did not work properly in the crash and that this proximately caused the wife’s injury. A superior court granted summary judgment to the defendant, finding the evidence did not support the assertion that the seat belt was defective.
The couple appealed to the state supreme court, which ultimately reversed the superior court, finding the plaintiffs raised genuine issues of material fact and allowing the case to proceed to trial.
The court found the plaintiff’s assertions were not based entirely on unsupported assumptions and speculation, as the defense alleged, and could be believed by reasonable minds. In order to prevail on the product liability claim, the plaintiff will have to show the seat belt was defective and this was the proximate cause of her compensable injuries. The court found there is a reasonable basis for her to do so on both accounts.
Specifically, the absence of bruising from the seat belt, given the estimated force of impact, plus the red mark on her forehead, supports the assertion the seat belt did not work properly. There is also testimony from the mechanic who worked on the vehicle after the crash. Although there may be gaps in the evidence that could play a role in the outcome of the trial, that shouldn’t bar the case entirely, the court ruled.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest a defective seat belt caused her injury, comprised of the wife’s symptoms coupled with a neurologist’s testimony describing the injuries as beginning after the accident and opining there “is no other explanation” for her ailments.
The Ferraro Law Firm handles claims resulting from defective medical products or dangerous pharmaceuticals. Call 1-800-275-3332 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.
Christensen v. Alaska Sales & Service, Inc., Oct. 10, 2014, Alaska Supreme Court