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Brethauer v. General Motors

Nov 02, 2006


Arizona Jury Finds No Defect in Chevrolet C1500 Pickup Truck

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - On Thursday, November 2nd, 2006, a jury in the Maricopa County Superior Court found that a 1998 Chevrolet C1500 pickup truck was not defective, rejecting claims that General Motors Corporation was responsible for the injuries sustained by Plaintiff in a 2001 single vehicle crash.  The jury in Jeff Brethauer vs. General Motors Corporation deliberated for five hours before rendering a verdict for the defendant.

On July 30, 2001, Jeff Brethauer was driving a 1998 Chevrolet pickup truck southbound on I-17 near the Sedona exit during a heavy rainstorm when the vehicle hydroplaned causing the vehicle to leave the highway to the right, ultimately striking a steep embankment.  The Plaintiff was ejected from the vehicle and received multiple injuries including bilateral broken scapulas, a fracture at T-12, L-11 and corresponding paraplegia.  Plaintiff claimed that he was wearing the seat belt, but the buckle inertially released in the crash.  He also claimed that the tempered side window glass shattered and failed to prevent this ejection. 

Plaintiff's restraint system expert, Stephon Syson, contended that Plaintiff was wearing his seat belt at the time of the crash.  He testified that the seat belt inertially released during the crash, ejecting Plaintiff through the defective side window glass of the 1998 Chevrolet pickup truck.  Mr. Syson further stated that the internal components for the buckle assembly were out of specification based on measurements made after the buckle was x-rayed.  Further, because the components were out of specification and because crash forces could be amplified from the vehicle frame to the buckle, the buckle was more susceptible to inertial release.  Plaintiff's kinematics and window glass expert, Donald Phillips, claimed that the driver's seat belt showed signs of habitual use and that the tempered glass used by General Motors was defective due to incorrect framing.  He further testified that glazing materials such as HPR laminated glass would have prevented Mr. Brethauer's ejection from the vehicle.

Robert Anderson, the Plaintiff's accident reconstruction expert, testified that he had calculated 10-20 G's acting on the vehicle in the vertical direction.  Mr. Syson stated that this was sufficient force to inertially release the buckle because the forces would be amplified by the time they reached the buckle.  Mr. Anderson also claimed that photos of tire marks at the accident location led to a large rock which he determined was hit head-on by the vehicle.  Upon cross examination, it was revealed that Mr. Anderson's opinions were flawed because he made a math error and really only calculated forces of 5-10 G's.  He further manipulated his digitized rock by lowering it below the surface of the ground so that it would match up with the damage to the front of the truck.

Dan Davee, a restraint system expert, testified for General Motors that the seat belt buckle and restraint system were reasonably safe and defect free and that the forces involved in this crash were not sufficient to cause the buckle to inertially release.  He further added that due to the mounting of the buckle on a wire rope, the forces to the buckle would not be amplified, but instead they would be reduced.  He testified that the Plaintiff's measurements of the x-rayed seat belt buckle were flawed and that these measurements had no bearing on the buckle's ability to resist inertia or the overall performance of the buckle.

Defendant's accident reconstruction expert, Ronald Woolley, P.E., Ph.D., testified that the tire marks did not lead to the rock, but rather illustrated that the vehicle spun out of control and collided with the embankment in a sideways orientation.  Through the use of the air bag sensing module data, Dr. Woolley testified that the 18 mile per hour Delta V was experienced by the vehicle after it struck the embankment.  This information was reaffirmed by General Motors' engineer Richard Bass.  Mr. Bass further testified that the air bag sensing module recorded that the driver's seat belt was unbuckled at the time of the crash.

Kon-Mei Ewing, General Motors' engineer, testified for the defendant that the side window glass of the vehicle met all federal motor vehicle safety standards and was used in virtually every vehicle produced in 1998.  Further, all pickup trucks on the road in 1998 had the same tempered glass side windows as the vehicle at issue in this case.  She added that Plaintiff's design alternatives for laminated glass and stiffer window framing were not commercially feasible or safer and would not have prevented Plaintiff's ejection.

William "Mike" Scott, Ph.D., a biomechanical expert, testified for General Motors that Plaintiff had no seat belt related injuries and the injuries resulted from being thrown from the vehicle.  He further testified that Plaintiff was ejected through the right front passenger window.  From the lack of marks on the belt and the plaintiff, Dr. Scott concluded that Plaintiff was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the crash.

Plaintiff's life care planner, Loretta Lukens, R.N., testified that she estimated approximately $2 million in future medical costs over Plaintiff's lifetime, which was reaffirmed by Dr. Nancy Cutter.  Plaintiff's economist, Dr. Thomas McKinnon, reduced this amount to present value of approximately $1 million.  Marilyn Kinnier, Plaintiff's vocational rehabilitation expert testified that Plaintiff was attending community college and would return to the workforce.

Edward Workman, Ph.D., a life care planner and vocational rehabilitation expert, testified for the defense that Ms. Lukens overestimated Plaintiff's costs, which were nearly twice the national average.  He further stated that Plaintiff's educational endeavors would lead to a job which would replace much of the pay he had been receiving prior to the accident.

Plaintiff's attorneys asked for $12 million in closing arguments.  The jury decided in favor of the defendant.

Jeff Brethauer vs. General Motors Corporation
Case No.:  2003-091542
Judge Mark Aceto
Maricopa County Superior Court

Attorneys for Defense:
William F. Auther, Bowman and Brooke - Phoenix, AZ

Attorneys for Plaintiff:
Patrick Ardis, Wolff Ardis, P.C., Memphis, TN; Glynn W. Gilcrease, Jr., Tempe, AZ

Experts appearing at trial for Defense:
Ronald Woolley, P.E. Ph.D., accident reconstruction, Provo, UT; Kon-Mei Ewing, GM engineer, Detroit, MI; Richard Bass, GM engineer, Detroit, MI; Dan Davee, restraint system, Phoenix, AZ; William "Mike" Scott, Ph.D., biomechanics, San Antonio, TX; Edward Workman, Ph.D., life care planner and vocational rehabilitation, San Clemente, CA

Experts appearing at trial for Plaintiffs:
Donald Phillips, seat belts, glazing and kinematics, Harrisburg, PA; Stephon Syson, restraint system, Santa Barbara, CA; Robert Anderson, reconstructionist, Phoenix, AZ; Loretta Lukens, R.N., Phoenix, AZ; Dr. Nancy Cutler, Denver, CO; Thomas McKinnon, Ph.D., Phoenix, AZ; Marilyn Kinnier, vocational rehabilitation expert, Phoenix, AZ

Trial Team

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