Jury Awards $40 Million for Delayed Recall of Defective Seatbelt
A jury returned a verdict of $40 million in a wrongful death lawsuit in which a 16 year-old girl was tragically killed when her defective seatbelt failed. The teenager was ejected from her 1999 Kia after the manufacturer delayed recall of the vehicle based on a false latching defect with the seatbelt.
Tiffany Stabler was driving to a family get together with her friend when she lost control of the vehicle. Both girls’ seatbelts failed, resulting in both teenager occupants being ejected from the vehicle.
False latching is one of the more common seatbelt defects. It occurs when a seatbelt latch sounds and/or feels like it is completely engaged when in fact it is not securely latched. Because the latch is not completely engaged, the buckle becomes unlatched during the force created by a vehicle impact. Prior to the fatal accident, Kia had recalled almost 90,000 vehicles for a similar false latching defect for vehicles from model years 1995-1998. Kia did not recall models from 1999-2000 because an upgrade had been installed. During the wrongful death lawsuit, evidence was produced that some vehicles manufactured during the recall years had the same upgrade.
A key issue in defective seatbelt product liability lawsuits is the question of whether the vehicle occupants were actually wearing a seatbelt. The defense in this lawsuit alleged that the car crash victims were ejected from the car because they were not wearing seatbelts. Although Tiffany had marks that the coroner testified were consistent with wearing a seatbelt, the defense claimed that the roof rail caused the chest injuries when she was ejected from the vehicle. However, the other passenger also testified that both she and Tiffany were wearing seatbelts.
While the vehicle recall was eventually extended so that it would have included Tiffany’s vehicle, the recall extension came too late to prevent Tiffany’s tragic death. Evidence was provided that the original recall cost $2.5 million. The jury presumably accepted the contention that the recall was delayed to avoid the cost associated with recalling another 250,000 vehicles.
Seatbelts constitute the most essential safety equipment in a motor vehicle. There are a number of defects that may occur in the design or manufacture of seatbelts that can leave vehicle occupants unprotected in a Georgia car accident. This case is particularly tragic because a teenage driver might still be alive if the seatbelt recall had not been delayed.
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