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Herbert v. Takata

Oct 01, 2007


Takata Wins Defense Verdict in Case Claiming Seat Belt Stuck

SCRANTON, PENNSYLVANIA - On October 1, 2007, a federal district court jury in Scranton, Pennsylvania returned a unanimous verdict finding no defect in the Takata seat belt retractor installed in a 1993 Geo Tracker, rejecting claims that an alleged manufacturing defect prevented the plaintiff from using his seat belt and therefore caused him to sustain a depressed skull fracture and traumatic brain injury when the Tracker crashed.

In the early morning hours of November 2, 2003, 19-year-old plaintiff Matthew Herbert left a Halloween party and got into a 1993 Geo Tracker with his 15-year-old girlfriend Andrea Homet and friends Robert Ford and Joseph Taylor. Ford and Taylor had been drinking beer, smoking marijuana, and taking painkiller drugs that evening. Homet had been drinking beer at the party, and plaintiff, Matthew Herbert, was also drinking that night, and later tested positive for alcohol (.112), cannabinoids and benzodiazepines. Ford drove as the four teenagers went joyriding and "off-roading" on rugged mountain roads. Ford and Taylor continued to drink from the case of beer in the Tracker. Plaintiff and Homet were sitting in the rear seat and made no attempt to buckle their seat belts. After Ford pulled over to relieve himself, Taylor got behind the wheel and continued the joyride. When the Tracker nearly rolled over, Homet allegedly tried to put her seat belt on (the right rear belt) but claims she could not pull the belt out of the retractor. Plaintiff then switched seats with Homet and, allegedly, he too could not pull the right rear seat belt out. As plaintiff was leaning forward between the two front seats telling Taylor to slow down, Taylor lost control of the Tracker, missing a curve and driving the Tracker off the road, across a bumpy grassy median, vaulting into the air and crashing head-on into a tree before rotating clockwise and hitting a second tree.

Plaintiff sustained a depressed skull fracture on the right side of his head when he struck the mounting bolt for the right front seat belt. This injury led to the removal of a "golf ball sized" portion of plaintiff's brain. Plaintiff claimed that he would not have sustained this injury if the right rear seat belt had been functional. Plaintiff claimed that the right rear seat belt malfunctioned because the Automatic Locking Retractor (ALR) gears of the seat belt retractor were allegedly misaligned when assembled, causing the seat belt to lock in its fully retracted position. A post-accident inspection by the state police revealed that the right rear seat belt could not be pulled out after the crash.

At trial, all evidence of plaintiff's alcohol and drug use was excluded from evidence as being too prejudicial to plaintiff's claims.

With regard to the product defect and malfunction claim, Takata produced evidence that it would have been virtually impossible for the seat belt retractor to have left Takata's control, or to have been installed in the subject vehicle, if the ALR gears had been misaligned. Takata also showed that the seat belt had worked properly for over ten years before the crash. Takata's evidence showed the seat belt retractor could be locked up by the impact forces of the crash, and, once the seat belt was manually switched out of ALR mode after the crash, it functioned normally. If plaintiff or his girlfriend were unable to pull the right rear seat belt out of the retractor during their joyride, Takata argued that was because they were yanking on it while the vehicle was tipping, accelerating or braking while driving around curves in the road, which would have made the belt lock and not pull out. Plaintiff countered this argument by emphasizing that the left rear seat belt did pull out and was latched during the drive that night. Takata also offered evidence that because of the severity of the crash, plaintiff's position leaning forward at the time of the crash, and the clockwise rotation of the vehicle at impact, plaintiff would have received the same injury even if he had been wearing his seat belt.

Matthew Herbert v. Takata Corporation, et al.
Court File No. 05-cv-2152 (M.D. Pa.)

Plaintiff's liability experts were Louis D'Aulerio of Penns Park, PA on seat belt retractor design and performance, and Brian Benda, Ph.D. of Penns Park, PA on biomechanics and injury causation. Plaintiff's damages experts were Jeanne Pelensky, M.D. of Elkins Park, PA on physical medicine; Mark Wagner, Ph.D. of Philadelphia, PA on neuropsychology; Laszlo Geder, M.D., Ph.D. of Elizabethtown, PA on neuropsychiatry; Philip Spergel, Ed.D. of Jenkintown, PA on vocational issues; and Robert Voogt, Ph.D. of Virginia Beach, VA on life care and cost of care.

Takata's expert witnesses were Michael Holcomb, P.E. of Rochester Hills, MI on accident reconstruction; Raymond Neathery, Ph.D. of Edmond, OK on seat belt retractor design and performance; Catherine Ford Corrigan, Ph.D. of Philadelphia, PA on biomechanics and injury causation; and Timothy Michals, M.D. of Philadelphia, PA on psychiatry.

Plaintiff asked the jury for $9.2 to $11.4 million for long-term care, medical expenses and claimed lost wages, plus an unspecified additional amount for pain and suffering. The seven-person jury deliberated for approximately an hour and a half before returning a unanimous defense verdict in favor of Takata, finding that plaintiff failed to prove the seat belt was defective.

Takata was represented by David R. Kelly and Patrick L. Arneson of Bowman and Brooke in Minneapolis, MN, and by Madeline S. Baio of Rawle & Henderson in Media, PA.

Plaintiff was represented by Michael D. Shaffer and Michael H. Gaier of Shaffer & Gaier in Philadelphia, PA.

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