Seat belts are life-saving devices in auto crashes. In fact, buckling up is one of the single most important things drivers and passengers can do to reduce the risk of injury in the event of a collision.
However, those who are obese sometimes have difficulty wearing seat belts. They may wear them the wrong way or not at all. And even if they do wear them properly, there is evidence to suggest the seat belt won’t properly protect them anyway. That’s because the crash test dummies approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are small. The female dummy weighs 108 pounds. The male weighs 175 pounds. These models haven’t been updated since the 1970s.
Some auto part manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to ensure larger passengers will be safe, and have designed their vehicles accordingly. But not all have, despite knowing the potential risk to these passengers. NBC News reports an estimated 160 million Americans are either obese or overweight. That’s about three-quarters of men and 60 percent of women. That’s a huge portion of the population to leave out of the safety equation.
Yet, as the case of Nissan v. Maddox reveals, it happens all too often. In this Kentucky Supreme Court case, a woman who suffered serious injuries as a result of a traffic accident sued the manufacturer of the vehicle and the seat belt.
Plaintiff was seated in the passenger seat, her husband driving, when the pair were struck head-on by a drunk driver at 70 mph. The drunk driver died instantly. Plaintiff’s husband, who weighed 170 pounds, sustained an injury to his foot, but otherwise was Ok. However, plaintiff’s injuries were severe and lasting.
She had to be extracted from the vehicle using hydraulic equipment. Fractures were sustained to her vertebrate, hip, hip socket and ribs. She suffered nerve damage. Her abdomen, at the site of a previous gastric bypass surgery, ruptured. There were also tears in her bowels. She spend half a year in the hospital and had to under 75 surgeries.
At the time of the crash, plaintiff was plus-sized at 240 pounds. She would later allege the vehicle equipment failed to properly protect her in the crash.
She sued the estate of the drunk driver, and settled that case out-of-court for a confidential sum prior to trial. She also sued the vehicle manufacturer. She alleged both the passenger seat and the seat belt safety system were defectively designed. The vehicle had designed its system in order to score a five-star crash test rating. However, in so doing, it overlooked the safety of bigger passengers.
Trial court held defendants 70 percent liable for plaintiff’s injuries. The drunk driver was deemed 30 percent at-fault. Jurors ordered defendant vehicle manufacturer to pay $2.6 million in compensatory damages, and another $2.5 million in punitive damages.
Defense appealed. The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, but were divided on the question of punitive damages. The case was further appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which decided the trial court erred in awarding punitive damages.
Punitive damages are supposed to be awarded in cases where a defendant acts with reckless disregard for the safety or lives of others. Here, defendant had made its vehicles to adhere to federal safety standards. Even though it was negligent in failing to protect obese passengers, its conducted didn’t rise to the level of reckless disregard for human life, the state high court ruled.
There have been numerous calls to the NHTSA to improve its safety guidelines relative to the seat belt systems for larger passengers. Unless and until that happens, we may well continue to see these kinds of product liability claims.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Nissan v. Maddox , Sept. 25, 2015, Kentucky Supreme Court
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GEICO v. Lepine – Florida Non-Joinder Rule in Auto Crash Cases, Sept. 27, 2015, Fort Myers Defective Seat Belt Lawyer Blog