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.
Defense Verdict in Honda Automobile Trial
PHOENIX, AZ - On March 6, 2003, after two hours of deliberation, a 9-person Phoenix jury in this four-week automobile crashworthiness product liability trial returned a unanimous defense verdict. ELKE GREENWOOD, individually and as personal representative for the Estate of Ronald Greenwood, and on behalf of her minor child RONALD GREENWOOD, JR. v. HONDA MOTOR CO., LTD., HONDA RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT COMPANY, LTD., AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO., HONDA R&D AMERICAS INC. and HONDA OF AMERICA MFG. INC., CV 99-022663, in the Maricopa County Superior Court, Phoenix, Arizona, Judge Michael J. O’Melia presiding.
Paul G. Cereghini with Bowman and Brooke LLP in Phoenix, Arizona, was Honda’s lead defense counsel. He was assisted at trial by Lori A. Zirkle and Paul R. Lee of Bowman and Brooke LLP. Larry E. Coben and Daniel Dell’Osso of the law firm of Coben and Associates represented plaintiffs Elke and Ronald Greenwood, Jr.
This trial arose out of a June 3, 1998, intersection accident in Scottsdale, Arizona. Decedent Ronald Greenwood, the driver of a 1994 Honda Civic Coupe, was traveling westbound through the intersection of Sweetwater Boulevard and Scottsdale Road when the driver of a southbound 1990 Lexus 250ES ran a red light striking the Honda in the driver’s side front fender and door. The Scottsdale Police Department calculated an impact speed of 46 mph by the Lexus and 22 mph by the Honda. The impact sent both vehicles spinning through the intersection and into a stationary delivery van.
Thirty-nine year old Ronald Greenwood was fatally injured in the collision. Dr. Greenwood fractured his left tibia, fibula, and femur, and his pelvis. He also sustained a severely torn aorta and died in surgery later that day. Dr. Greenwood, a pulmonologist, was survived by his wife, Elke Greenwood and a son Ronald Greenwood, Jr., born five months after the accident. Plaintiffs’ damages included medical expenses, funeral expenses, lost future income and services, loss of love and affection and past and future mental suffering. Plaintiffs’ economist estimated the present value of plaintiffs’ economic loss at approximately $10 million.
Plaintiffs contended that the 1994 Honda Civic Coupe was uncrashworthy in side impact collisions. Plaintiffs claimed that the Civic’s door beam was too high and too weak to prevent occupant compartment intrusion by the impacting Lexus. Further, plaintiffs alleged that the Civic needed two door beams and various body reinforcements to provide greater rigidity in side impact accidents. The court permitted plaintiffs to introduce evidence that some later model automobiles have two beams in each door and other structures to enhance side impact performance.
Much of plaintiffs’ case focused on a recent amendment to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards imposing dynamic crash test performance requirements. Under the FMVSS 214 dynamic test standard, a 3,000 pound moving deformable barrier is crashed into a test vehicle at a 27° angle to simulate a 30 mph vehicle striking a 15 mph vehicle in a 90° intersection accident. The 1994 model year was the first of a four year phase-in period for this new federal safety standard. For model year 1994, manufacturers were required to conform 10% of their fleets to the new standard. The 1994 Civic Coupe was part of the fifth generation Honda Civic line developed between 1989 and 1991, and therefore, it was not subject to the new standard.
Honda contended that the 1994 Honda Civic was a safe and defect-free vehicle with state-of-the-art side impact crashworthiness. Honda maintained that the subject accident was extremely severe and that none of the alternative designs promoted by plaintiffs’ experts would have prevented Dr. Greenwood’s fatal injuries. Furthermore, Honda introduced statistical accident data to demonstrate that the 1994 Civic provided excellent real world side impact protection when compared to other vehicles including later model Honda Civics and various newer and larger vehicles singled out by the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses.
Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses included Robert Caldwell, a civil engineer from Boulder, Colorado who reconstructed the accident; Stephen Syson, a mechanical engineer from Goleta, California, who testified about the design of the 1994 Honda Civic Coupe and various alternative designs; Dr. Dean Jacobson, a mechanical engineer from Tempe, Arizona, who testified about vehicle design and the performance of other vehicles in NHTSA dynamic side impact tests; Dr. Joseph Burton, a pathologist from Alpharetta, Georgia, who testified about the cause of decedent’s death; Dr. Carley Ward, a biomechanical engineer from Pacific Palisades, California, who testified about a crash test performed by one of the defendants’ experts; and Dr. Larry Stokes, a Phoenix economist who testified about the present value of plaintiffs’ economic damages.
The Honda defendants called three expert witnesses. Terry Thomas, with Thomas Engineering in Phoenix, Arizona, defended the design of the 1994 Honda Civic Coupe and presented a full-scale crash test of a later model competitor vehicle identified by plaintiffs’ experts as a better alternative design. Dr. James Benedict with Biodynamic Research Corporation in San Antonio, Texas, testified about the nature and mechanism of decedent’s injuries. Dr. Rose Ray, with Exponent in Menlo Park, California, testified about statistical risk analysis and presented evidence of the real world side impact accident performance of the 1994 Honda Civic Coupe compared to peer vehicles, later model Civics, and the vehicles selected by plaintiffs’ experts as alternative designs.
Plaintiffs’ case relied heavily on various NHTSA tests performed on the Honda Civic as well as other manufacturers’ earlier and later model year vehicles. Honda responded with evidence that the Civic performed very well in NHTSA’s testing even though the FMVSS 214 dynamic side impact test standard did not apply to the 1994 model year Civic. Further, Honda demonstrated that the subject accident was much more severe than an FMVSS 214 side impact test in part because of the high speed of the impacting Lexus and the mismatch of the vehicle weights with the Lexus approximately 1,000 pounds heavier than the Civic.
Plaintiffs’ counsel did not suggest a specific amount of damages to the jury in his closing argument. He did, however, point out his economist’s evaluation of plaintiffs’ economic loss of approximately $10 million. Honda’s counsel argued that the 1994 Honda Civic provided state-of-the-art side impact protection. Further, Honda asked the jury to find no defect and no causation; and, therefore, to award no damages.
After the jury returned its unanimous defense verdict, Honda’s lead counsel, Paul Cereghini, commented:
"One of the keys to Honda’s victory in this case was a crash test run on a competitors’ vehicle to demonstrate that Dr. Greenwood would not have survived the accident even if he had been in a newer and heavier car with many of the alternative designs touted by the plaintiffs’ experts. In pretrial discovery, we pinned the plaintiffs’ experts down by having them identify a vehicle that they felt met the new federal side impact standard and that they would admit to be non-defective. We then ran a crash test at the same high level of severity as Dr. Greenwood’s accident to show the jury that Dr. Greenwood would have received fatal injuries even in the newer and heavier car advocated by plaintiffs’ experts. Because the accident was so severe, the test we ran was very dramatic and effectively proved our defense."