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Minneapolis team receives unanimous verdict for Kia Motors Corporation
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - On June 15, 2005, an eight-member jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Kia Motors Corporation in this Kia Sportage "SUV" rollover "roof crush" case today.
On February 8, 2002, 40-year-old plaintiff, Jane Flis, was driving her 1998 Kia Sportage north on Interstate 65 between Indianapolis and Chicago. She was wearing her seat belt. With her was her daughter in the front passenger seat, also belted, and the daughter’s boyfriend, unbelted and lying down in the rear seat. At about 5:45 a.m., at highway speeds along a straight stretch of northbound I-65, Ms. Flis allegedly encountered a patch of black ice. She lost control, and went off road to the left into the grassy interstate median. The Sportage traveled 45 feet as it yawed counterclockwise and then tripped on the downhill slope of the median, rolling over, passenger side leading, at least twice. During the second roll, the driver’s roof rail struck the upslope of the median. Kia presented evidence that the top of the driver’s head was against the inside of the roof rail at the time of this hard rollover roof impact. Ms. Flis received a C7-T1 dislocation fracture, rendering her an incomplete quadriplegic. The other Sportage occupants suffered only minor injuries.
Plaintiffs contended at trial that Ms. Flis sustained her serious neck injury because the Sportage had inadequate roof strength, and specifically that the lack of roof strength allowed it to "crush in on Mrs. Flis," breaking her neck. Plaintiffs also argued that, since sport utility vehicles as a class roll over more frequently than passenger cars, manufacturers have an increased obligation to make SUV roofs very strong. Plaintiffs’ claimed that Ms. Flis’s neck injury could only have been caused by the roof pressing the driver’s head down into full flexion (chin-to-chest), while the driver was "wedged" between the seat bottom and inward-crushing roof rail.
Kia’s defense responded that plaintiffs are completely wrong about the mechanism of neck injury in rollovers and in this particular rollover crash. Defense testing showed that neck injuries in rollovers occur when the vehicle and the occupant are upside-down, and the vehicle, roof and occupant all hit the ground at the same time. If the head, neck and torso are aligned when this happens, as was the case here, the occupant’s downward-moving torso loads into and compressed the neck, causing injury before there is any significant roof deformation. The defense described this mechanism of injury as "torso augmentation," explaining that: it occurs when the occupant essentially "dives" into the ground; when it occurs, the buttocks of the occupant is not pressed against the seat; it does not occur because of the roof "crushing in" or "crushing down" on the occupant; and the same or equally severe neck injury would occur even if the roof were made infinitely rigid so that it would not deform at all.
Thus, as is true of most rollover "roof crush" cases, the primary issue in this case was neck injury "mechanism." Plaintiffs’ claimed the roof "crushes in" on the occupant causing injury; Defendant claimed that the injury was caused by torso loading/augmentation when the roof and the head of the "diving" occupant hit the ground in the rollover slam-down.
Kia also countered that the vehicle body, including its roof, must deform appropriately in order to absorb energy in crashes. Kia also presented evidence that the Sportage is well designed with an appropriately structurally strong body, including its roof. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216 sets forth the requirements for roof strength. Plaintiffs claimed the 216 Standard is inadequate. The Defendant’s position was that roof strength in excess of the requirement of this applicable FMVSS standard does not reduce the risk of neck injury in rollover crashes. In any event, test documents showed that the Sportage exceeds Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216 by a considerable margin, and plaintiffs’ own design expert had to acknowledge that the Sportage roof strength is above average.
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENTS AND VERDICT
Plaintiffs argued that Kia was fully liable for the driver’s catastrophic neck injury and asked the jury for over $24 million in damages. The defense argued that the design of the Kia Sportage is not defective, that plaintiffs’ neck injury was not caused by deformation or "crushing" of the roof, and the injury would have occurred without any roof "crush," and that the driver’s injuries were caused by the severity of the rollover and her own negligence in losing control of the vehicle while driving at a speed too high for conditions.
After approximately 90 minutes deliberation, the eight-person jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Kia Motors Corporation . . . specifically finding that the Kia Sportage is not defective in design.
Case name: Jane A. Flis and Richard J. Flis, Jr. v. Kia Motors Corporation
Case number: 1:03-CV-1567-JDT-TAB
Court: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana
Attorneys for Flis: Robert M.N. Palmer and Timothy J. Kennedy of Miller, Muller, Mendelson & Kennedy
Attorneys for Kia: David R. Kelly of Bowman and Brooke LLP and Kevin C. Schiferl of Locke, Reynolds LLP
Experts for Flis: Robert Caldwell (accident reconstruction) Lafayette, Colorado, Stephen Syson (roof design, strength and performance) Santa Barbara, California, and Martha Bidez, Ph.D (biomechanics and injury mechanisms) Birmingham, Alabama.
Experts for Kia Motors Corporation: Geoffrey Germane, Ph.D. (accident reconstruction) Provo, Utah, Thomas McNish, M.D. (biomechanics and injury causation) San Antonio, Texas, and Garry Bahling (occupants kinematics and injury timing and causation in rollover crashes and vehicle roof design and performance) Metamora, Michigan.