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Variale v. Honda

Feb 09, 2005



Defense Verdict -- Honda Automobile Airbag Trial in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NV - On December 6, 2004, after fifty minutes of deliberation, an 8-person Las Vegas jury in this three-week automobile airbag product liability trial returned a unanimous defense verdict. VINCENZO VARIALE, and NICOLETTA M. VARIALE, husband and wife, v. AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR COMPANY, INC., Case No. A 432577, in the Clark County District Court, Las Vegas, Nevada, Judge Jackie Glass presiding.

Paul G. Cereghini with Bowman and Brooke in Phoenix, Arizona, was American Honda’s lead defense counsel.  He was assisted at trial by Curtis J. Busby of Bowman and Brooke and Greg W. Marsh of the Law Offices of Greg W. Marsh in Las Vegas.  William R. Brenske and James R. Christenson of the law firm of Brenske and Christenson in Las Vegas represented plaintiffs Vincenzo and Nicoletta Variale. Las Vegas attorney Ron Israel also represented plaintiffs in pre-trial matters.

Before trial, Honda’s in-house counsel, David Peim, authorized a nuisance value statutory offer, and once the offer expired, Honda proceeded to trial without further settlement negotiations.  On February 9, 2005, the trial court ruled that plaintiffs were “grossly unreasonable” in rejecting Honda’s prior offer.  Because of plaintiffs’ “unreasonable” rejection of Honda’s offer, Judge Glass awarded $347,793.50 in attorney’s fees pursuant to Nevada's offer of judgment statute.  The court also granted $172,360.19 for costs, bringing the total award against plaintiffs to $520,153.69.

This trial arose out of a July 7, 2000, accident in Las Vegas.  Vincenzo Variale, the driver of a 1992 Acura Vigor, was traveling westbound on Sahara Avenue approaching Rainbow Boulevard when Michael Diffin, the driver of a 1992 Isuzu Rodeo, pulled into his path of travel.  The vehicles collided and the Vigor’s driver’s side airbag deployed. Mr. Variale claimed that the airbag released a thick plume of smoke and powder and that he was trapped in his vehicle for 20 minutes after the collision.

Mr. Variale alleged that he had no prior respiratory problems but developed a form of chemically induced asthma known as reactive airways dysfunction syndrome or RADS as a result of the airbag deployment.   He also claimed to have secondary complications including vocal cord dysfunction, sleep apnea, depression and osteopenia as a result of his medication. Mr. Variale alleged that he lost his $150,000 a year job because he was unable to travel for work.  His wife, Nicoletta Variale, claimed loss of consortium. 

Four treating Las Vegas physicians diagnosed Mr. Variale with RADS or some other respiratory ailment resulting from the airbag deployment. Mr. Variale was also evaluated at one of the foremost pulmonary facilities in the nation, the National Jewish Medical Center in Denver.  Three of Mr. Variale’s treating physicians at National Jewish also confirmed the RADS diagnosis.

American Honda established that the Acura Vigor airbag released harmless nitrogen gas and talcum powder and was safe and defect‑free.   Honda also introduced evidence that millions of airbags have deployed saving thousands of lives. There are no confirmed instances of persons developing RADS from an airbag deployment.   Further, Honda proved that many of the clinical criteria for diagnosing RADS depend upon subjective patient complaints and tests that can be influenced by patient effort.

Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses included his numerous treating physicians, including Las Vegas internist Lawrence Copeland and Las Vegas pulmonologists Paul Stewart, M.D., Aksay Sood, M.D. and Syed Akbarullah, M.D.  Plaintiffs also introduced testimony from treating physicians at the National Jewish Medical Center including Robert Bethel, M.D., Todd Kingdom, M.D. and Craig Glazer, M.D. Dr. Gary Bakken, a warnings expert from Tucson and Dr. Terrence Claurettie, a Las Vegas economist also testified on plaintiffs’ behalf.

American Honda called five expert witnesses: Mary Christopherson, a Honda engineer with experience in the design and safety of airbags; Chris Erickson, an Autoliv chemist with knowledge about the safety of airbag effluents; Dr. Neal Langerman, a warnings expert with experience concerning the hazards associated with chemicals; Dr. Mindy Shapiro, a former Las Vegas pulmonologist who performed an independent medical examination; and Dr. Stuart Brooks, a renown pulmonologist who first established the clinical criteria for diagnosing RADS.

Plaintiffs’ counsel argued that Mr. Variale’s damages included a future wage loss of over $1.3 million; past medicals of $76,000; future medicals of $201,600; and past non economic damages of $250,000.  Mrs. Variale claimed a future non‑economic loss of $100,000.   In total, plaintiffs’ claimed damages of approximately $2.22 million, not including Mr. Variale's future non-economic damages.  American Honda asked the jury to find no defect and no causation; and, therefore, to award no damages.

Following the jury’s unanimous defense verdict and the trial court’s award of over $500,000 in fees and costs against the plaintiffs, Honda’s lead trial counsel, Cereghini commented:

“This time the defense sends the message.  We hope this verdict deters frivolous lawsuits.  A half million dollars is a steep price for a losing lottery ticket.  Honda sold a safe product and should not have been sued.”

Trial Team

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