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Unanimous Defense Verdict in Driver's Lawsuit Against Mazda Claiming Seatbelt Buckle Defect

Phoenix, AZ
Sep 01, 2011

Fields v. Mazda

CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - On September 14, 2011 (27 minutes after the case was submitted to them for deliberation), a nine-member Maricopa County Superior Court jury returned a unanimous verdict for Mazda. On August 10, 2006, then 37-year-old Hali Fields drove her 2000 Protege at 45 mph into an intersection, colliding with a Chevy pickup driven by co-defendant, Garcia Mendosa, who ran a red light. Fields sustained a traumatic brain injury and cervical and thoracic fractures. Mendosa got a ticket, but served no time and paid no fine. Plaintiff claimed her Autoliv JDC-type seatbelt buckle released in the impact allegedly because it was "false latched" by a small plastic chip from the seatbelt buckle cover that was later found inside the buckle. Plaintiffs claimed that the "chip" apparently broke off from the mouth of the buckle and dropped down inside the buckle sometime before the accident.

The defense argued that there was no defect in the Protégé restraint system, and that the cause of the accident and injuries was negligent driving and the driver's failure to wear her seatbelt. There were no belt load marks on Fields or on her seatbelt, and it was the position of the defense that Fields, who may otherwise have been a habitual seatbelt wearer, simply did not have it on that day.

The plaintiffs' liability expert claimed the plastic chip had become wedged in the buckle's latching mechanism causing it to "false latch" -- but he could only duplicate that condition with what the defense called a parlor trick he performed with tweezers and a cut-open buckle. The defense showed the jury a videotape clip from plaintiffs' seatbelt expert's deposition, with him struggling to artfully place the "chip" inside the buckle, only to have the latchplate pop out of the buckle when he barely touched it.

The following expert witnesses testified on the technical issues for the Mazda defendants: Peter Luepke (Freemont, Indiana) accident reconstruction; Robert Gratzinger (Newport Coast, California) seatbelt design and performance; and, Dr. Thomas McNish (San Antonio, Texas) biomechanics.

Plaintiffs' expert witnesses were Steven Meyer (Goleta, CA) seatbelt design and performance; Michael Shepston (Scottsdale, Arizona) accident reconstruction; and, Robert Anderson (Tempe, Arizona) biomechanics.

The Mazda defendants were represented by Bowman and Brooke LLP attorneys David R. Kelly (Minneapolis, Minnesota) and Kristy Ferraro (Phoenix, Arizona).

Plaintiffs were represented by G. Lynn Shumway, Law Office of G. Lynn Shumway, Phoenix, Arizona.

Hali Fields, Plaintiff, vs. Mazda Motor Corp., et al., Maricopa Co., AZ.

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