A seven-member jury in Roanoke, Virginia (VA), has ordered carmaker Mazda to pay a wheelchair-bound woman $20 million after finding that the defective design of a safety feature on older Miatas resulted in the victim's disabling injuries. The company has indicated that it plans to appeal the ruling. If it stands, the damages must be paid with interest accrued since the date of the accident in 2006, when the woman incurred the neck and spine injuries that left her unable to walk.
The victim claimed that latches intended to hold the soft canopy in place against the windshield when closed failed after the convertible landed upside down off the side of Route 619 near the town of Thaxton in Bedford County, VA. As a result, she and her lawyers argued, the windshield collapsed, leading to the crushing of her spinal column. The woman said she had to swerve to avoid a partially inflated plastic kiddie pool that had flown out of the bed of a pickup truck ahead of her. She subsequently lost control of her vehicle and flipped. The pickup driver was never identified.
A Mazda spokesperson argued that no latch could have withstood the forces and strain created during the rollover. In a statement reprinted by Lynchburg television station WSET-TV, the company's representative said, "Mazda does not agree that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to support her allegation of defect. The subject accident was a severe rollover accident and we presented evidence that the subject vehicle is a soft top convertible and that no reasonable person could expect a convertible to prevent injury in such a crash."
Deciding product liability cases such as this is always difficult. Even when the facts are much more clearly in the injured or killed person's favor, manufacturers use every strategy available to them to call the plaintiff's claims into question. Judges and jury members face a difficult task in sorting through both technical details and emotional pleas.
I cannot state whether the award granted in Roanoke is correct or just. As a Virginia personal injury lawyer whose firm has handled several product liability cases, however, I strongly support the paralyzed woman's right to seek compensation from a company that she believes failed in its duty to protect her health and safety. I also congratulate my Virginia plaintiff's attorney colleagues John Lichtenstein and Brent Brown, for successfully representing their client.