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Mazda Receives Victory in $7.3 Million Seat Belt Suit

Missoula, MT
Oct 13, 2015

Speaks v. Mazda

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At the conclusion of a seven-day trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, a jury returned a unanimous defense verdict in favor of Mazda, finding “no defect” in the design of the front passenger restraint system of Mazda’s 1994 Protegé. In closing arguments, Plaintiff’s counsel had asked the jury for up to $7.26 million. Speaks v. Mazda Motor Corp. et al., No. 9:14-cv-00025, Judge Dana L. Christensen presiding.

On January 29, 2011, while riding in the front passenger seat of the subject 1994 Mazda Protegé, Plaintiff Incarnacion Speaks was severely injured when another vehicle made an improper left turn, striking the subject Protegé nearly head-on in an intersection in Missoula, Montana. Speaks, a small-statured woman, alleged that the restraint system did not fit her properly because the passive shoulder belt allegedly concentrated unbalanced and excessive loading across her torso, causing her to sustain life-threatening intra-abdominal injuries in the crash. She further claimed that Mazda had failed to use what her engineering witness claimed were safer alternative seatbelt designs.

At trial, Mazda was precluded from offering evidence of compliance with government standards, including the requirement that all passenger vehicles sold in the United States during this period be equipped with some form of passive restraint system. Mazda was also precluded from introducing state-of-the-art evidence. In addition, under Montana law, evidence of product “misuse” is not admissible in strict liability cases. Among Mazda’s defenses, however, it showed that at the moment of impact, Speaks’ shoulder belt was routed under her right arm instead of over the shoulder, as designed. Mazda was permitted to introduce this evidence solely for the purpose of negating causation, not as evidence of Plaintiff’s misuse, or as evidence of her contributory fault. The jury, however, did not reach the issue of causation on the verdict form, instead finding “no defect” in response to the first verdict form question. As evidence that the design of the front passenger restraint system was non-defective, Mazda presented a sled test proving that an instrumented female crash test dummy approximately the size of Speaks would not have sustained serious injury if the shoulder belt had been worn over the shoulder, instead of under her arm, in the crash.

In a statement, second chair trial attorney for Mazda, Michael R. Carey of Bowman and Brooke, commented:

"As this jury verdict demonstrates, the design of the passive restraint system in the subject 1994 Mazda Protegé provides front occupants with a safe crash environment in a variety of foreseeable crash scenarios. After all of the evidence was considered, the jury thoughtfully concluded that the subject vehicle was free of defects, and that Plaintiff's injuries resulted from other causes."

Plaintiff Incarnacion Speaks’ experts were Robert Caldwell (accident reconstruction), Steven Syson (restraint system design), Michelle Hoffman (biomechanics), Dr. Nancy Cutter (physiatrist), Loretta Lukens (life care), Margot Luckman (vocational rehabilitation), and Steven Johnson (economist).

Mazda’s experts were Dr. Gregory Smith (accident reconstruction), Michael Klima (restraint system design and performance), Dr. Michael Scott (biomechanics), Dr. Cynthia Day (radiology), and Dr. Brian Fennerty (gastroenterology).

Plaintiff was represented by Robert M.N. Palmer of The Law Offices of PalmerOliver, P.C., Dennis P. Conner of Conner & Marr PLLP, and Steve Fletcher of Fletch Law PLLC.

Mazda was represented by David R. Kelly and Michael R. Carey of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Ronald A. Bender of Worden Thane P.C. in Missoula, Montana.

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