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Kilgore v. Fuji Heavy Industries

New Mexico
Sep 28, 2006

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.

New Mexico Jury Finds Seat Belt System in Subaru Legacy Not Defective

SANTE FE, NM - On Thursday, September 28, 2006, a Santa Fe County, New Mexico, District Court jury found that the seat belt restraint system in a 1998 Subaru Legacy was not defective in design, rejecting claims that Subaru and its seat belt supplier were responsible for the injuries sustained by plaintiff in a 2000 single vehicle rollover crash.  The jury in Donald E. Kilgore and Carole A. Kilgore vs. Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Takata Corporation and Takata Seat Belts Inc. deliberated for just over two hours before rendering a verdict for the manufacturing defendants.

On May 19, 2000, Donald Kilgore was driving a 1998 Subaru Legacy on a road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to southern Colorado.  In the vehicle with him were his wife, Carole Kilgore, in the left side rear seat, and seven-year-old Emily Walters, in the front passenger seat.  Mr. Kilgore went off the road to the left, over-corrected back to the right, crossing the highway, and rolling the Subaru Legacy 3 1/2 times, passenger-side leading down the slope off the left side of the road.

Back seat passenger, Carole Kilgore, sustained a neck injury rendering her a C2 ventilator-dependent quadriplegic.  Through their seat belt design witness, Stephen Syson, plaintiffs criticized the design of the Takata AB buckle used in the back seat of the Subaru Legacy.  Mr. Syson claimed Mrs. Kilgore's seat belt buckle unlatched because her elbow allegedly hit the top of the seat belt buckle during the rollover.  Plaintiffs' biomechanic, Martha Bidez, Ph.D., claimed that belt release allowed Mrs. Kilgore to move across the rolling vehicle, striking her head at the roof rail above the right-side rear door.  Defendants contended that the belt remained latched throughout the crash, and was released by the plaintiff or by a bystander after the vehicle came to rest.  Defendants contended that Mrs. Kilgore was injured with her seat belt on.  Defense biomechanic, Dr. Whit McConnell, testified that when the vehicle impacted upside down during the rollover, Mrs. Kilgore's head, neck and torso were aligned to the roof, resulting in a torso augmentation neck injury that occurred while her belt remained buckled. 

Defense expert Thomas R. Perl, Ph.D., reconstructed the crash for the defendants and concluded that the vehicle rolled 3 1/2 times, rolling rapidly to cause objects in the vehicle to move up and out - away from the center of gravity and away from the seat belt buckle.  Also testifying for the defense in support of the design and performance of the restraint system and seat belt buckle were Mr. Jeffrey L. Pearson and Donald E. Struble, Ph.D.  They testified that seat belt buckles must be designed for easy use, including easy and convenient latching and unlatching.  Tests showed elbows do not move into seat belt buckles during rollovers, and no buckle has ever unlatched in any rollover test.  They testified that this and many other seat belt buckles can be intentionally unlatched with an "elbow," but unintentional unlatching with an elbow or other object is extremely unlikely in rollover crashed, and the physical evidence indicated that did not happen in this crash.

Defendants argued that the Subaru Legacy and its seat belt restraint system are not defective, and Mrs. Kilgore was not injured because of her seat belt or its buckle.  Defendants contended that Mrs. Kilgore was injured because of the severity of the rollover crash - a crash and a severity that was not caused by the defendants. 

Plaintiffs' counsel asked the jury to award Mr. and Mrs. Kilgore $25 million, plus an unspecified amount for "punitive damages."

After approximately two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict finding that defendants were not negligent and that the seat belt system is not defective.

Kilgore v. Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Takata Corporation and Takata Seat Belts Inc.
Case No. :  D-0101-CV-2003-00941
Judge Stephen D. Pfeffer
Santa Fe County, First Judicial District Court

Attorneys for Defense:
David R. Kelly, Bowman and Brooke - Minneapolis, MN

Attorneys for Plaintiff:
Darrel Peters and Susan E. Lister, Peters & Lister, P.C., Dearborn, MI

Experts appearing at trial for Defense:
Jeffrey Pearson, seat belt design, testing and performance, Rochester, MI; Whitman E. McConnell, M.D., P.P.H., occupant kinematics, biomechanics and injury mechanism, San Antonio, TX; Thomas R. Perl, Ph.D., P.E., accident reconstruction, Orem, UT; Donald E. Struble, Ph.D., seat belt design, testing and performance, San Luis Obispo, CA; Edward Workman, Ed.D., life care expert, San Clemintine, CA.

Experts appearing at trial for Plaintiffs:
Martha Bidez, Ph.D., occupant kinematics, biomechanics and injury mechanism; Robert Caldwell, P.E., accident reconstruction; Patricia L. Pacey, Ph.D., economist; Stephen R. Syson, seat belt design, testing and performance; Helen M. Woodard, rehabilitation and vocational counseling.

Trial Team

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