Texas Supreme Court grants Kia new trial following $1.9 million verdict in defective airbag lawsuit

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by Jay Pate

Andrea and Lawrence Ruiz owned a 2002 Kia Spectra. On January 16, 2006, Andrea was driving the Spectra, and her daughter Suzanna was in the front passenger seat. Both were wearing seat belts. They were involved in a head-on collision with a pickup truck. Suzanna’s air bag deployed, and she suffered minor injuries. Andrea’s air bag did not deploy, and she died at the scene from two dislocated vertebrae in her neck caused by severe front-to-back head movement. 

The Ruiz family filed a lawsuit against Kia, alleging a defectively designed air-bag system in the 2002 Spectra resulted in the driver’s-side air bag failing to deploy during the collision. At trial, the Ruizes asserted that defective wiring connectors in the air-bag system created an open circuit that prevented the air bag from deploying. The jury found that Kia negligently designed the vehicle’s air-bag system and that it was a proximate cause of Andrea’s injury.

The jury apportioned forty-five percent of the responsibility to Kia and fifty-five percent of the responsibility to the driver of the pickup truck. The jury awarded the Ruizes $1,972,000 in compensatory damages and $2,500,000 in exemplary damages. The trial court disregarded the jury’s gross-negligence and punitive-damages findings because the jury was not unanimous in finding Kia negligent. In its final judgment, the trial court reduced the amount of actual damages recoverable from Kia by its percentage of responsibility and awarded the Ruizes $887,400 in damages, plus costs and pre-and post-judgment interest.

The Texas Supreme Court has now reversed the judgment and ruled that Kia is entitled to a new trial. Kia Motors Corp. v. Ruiz, — S.W.3d —-, 2014 WL 1258169 (Tex. March 28, 2014). The court agreed with Kia that the trial court erred in admitting a spreadsheet summarizing authorized warranty claims involving air bags in similarly designed vehicles. The court found that many of the warranty claims on the spreadsheet were not sufficiently similar to the defect alleged by the Ruiz family. According to the Texas Supreme Court:

The spreadsheet is an oversized (18” x 24”), sixteen-page document and was one of the exhibits requested by the jury during deliberations. The sheer volume of irrelevant yet prejudicial information presented to the jury in that document and the consistent focus on it at trial-often on the document as a whole-make it very difficult to overlook the likely effect it had. On this record, Kia has demonstrated, and we hold, that the erroneously admitted spreadsheet probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment.

Id.

The court did, however, reject a significant argument raised on appeal by Kia that will likely be important in the new trial. Kia raised an argument concerning the applicability of section 82.008 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. The law establishes a rebuttable presumption that a manufacturer is not liable on a design-defect theory for a claimant’s injuries if the product complies with certain applicable federal safety standards. More specifically, a manufacturer is entitled to a presumption of nonliability for its product’s design if the manufacturer establishes that (1) the product complied with mandatory federal safety standards or regulations, (2) the standards or regulations were applicable to the product at the time of manufacture, and (3) the standards or regulations governed the product risk that allegedly caused the harm. The claimant may rebut this presumption by establishing that “the mandatory federal safety standards or regulations applicable to the product were inadequate to protect the public from unreasonable risks of injury or damage.”

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with the Ruiz family that Kia was not entitled to the presumption in the case. Kia asserted that the car complied with FMVSS 208 which requires vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 1997, to have front driver’s side and passenger’s-side air bags. However, under the third prong of the section 82.008(a) analysis, the 2002 Spectra design’s compliance with FMVSS 208 raises a presumption of Kia’s nonliability only if that standard “governed the product risk that allegedly caused the harm.”

In this case, the Ruizes alleged that the air bag’s defectively designed wiring harness rendered it prone to open circuits and the air bag’s corresponding failure to deploy when it should have. FMVSS 208 requires frontal air bags and specifies the maximum amount of force and acceleration that dummy occupants may encounter during a frontal-crash test. However, the force test presumes air bag deployment. The test not measure or apply to air-bag failure rates. Nothing in FMVSS 208 suggests a purpose of reducing the likelihood of an air bag’s failure to deploy under circumstances in which everyone agrees it should have deployed. In short, although FMVSS 208 contemplates what occupant-restraint systems are required, it does not contemplate the likelihood of their failure to deploy and thus does not address that risk. Accordingly, the Texas Supreme Court held that the trial court did not err in concluding that the statutory presumption did not apply.

Heygood, Orr & Pearson and Automotive Litigation

The manufacturers of cars and trucks have an obligation to ensure that the vehicles they sell are as safe as possible under current technology, vehicle design, and safety standards. Automakers are also obligated to design cars and trucks that are safe for any reasonable foreseeable use. Cars must be both reasonably safe when an accident occurs while also being equipped with technology that could help prevent a crash from occurring. When vehicles are not manufactured in accordance with current safety standards and federal laws governing vehicle safety, the car maker may be held liable in a court of law for the injuries caused by their vehicles.

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a car accident, it may well be that the accident was caused by a defect with the automobile. It is also possible that your injuries were caused or made worse because the vehicle was not sufficiently crashworthy. In order to determine whether you may have a case, you need to retain experienced, qualified legal counsel at the earliest opportunity.

At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have the experience and knowledge to pursue cases involving automotive defects and vehicle crashworthiness against any of the major auto manufacturers. For a free legal consultation about your case, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out the free contact form on this site.