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New Mexico Court of Appeals Denies New Trial in Case Alleging Unintentional Release of Seatbelt Buckle

New Mexico
May 29, 2009

Kilgore v. Fuji Heavy Industries - Appeal


Plaintiffs Donald and Carole Kilgore claimed that Carole's seatbelt unlatched when their 1998 Subaru Legacy Outback station wagon rolled over in the single-vehicle crash in 2000. The Kilgores claimed the seatbelt buckle, made by Takata, unlatched because it was allegedly susceptible to accidental press button release. Plaintiff, Carole Kilgore, was paralyzed in the rollover crash. Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) and Takata Corporation and Takata Seat Belts Inc. (Takata) denied that the seatbelt buckle design was defective and denied that the buckle released in the crash, contending that somebody at the scene, possibly even Carole Kilgore herself, before her spinal cord swelled enough to result in her paralysis, unbuckled the belt after the rollover. After a three-week trial in September 2006, a Santa Fe County, New Mexico, District Court jury returned a unanimous defense verdict, rejecting claims that Subaru and its seatbelt supplier were responsible for the injuries sustained by plaintiff. On appeal, the New Mexico Court of Appeals denied new trial and affirmed the verdict for defendants (Kilgore vs. Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., et al., N.M. Ct. App. No. 27,470, 5/29/09).

On appeal, the Kilgores argued that they should have been granted a new trial because of juror misconduct, the exclusion of evidence of other claims, an alleged "surprise" defense theory, and the admission of "speculative" testimony regarding Takata's seatbelt buckle ball-press testing. The appellate court rejected those arguments.

As to the claim of juror misconduct, the appellate court found that, even though a juror had spoken to a Subaru repair shop owner early in the trial, there was no showing that she had disobeyed the trial judge's order not to discuss the case with others, and the incident did not arise to the level appropriate for a presumption of prejudice.

The appellate court ruled that evidence of other claims and incidents was properly excluded because plaintiffs' failed to show substantial similarity to the circumstances of the Kilgore accident.

The Court of Appeals also rejected plaintiffs' argument that, in his opening statement, Subaru's counsel had sprung a "surprise theory" that Carole Kilgore may have been the person who unlatched her own seatbelt after the crash. The Court of Appeals rejected this claim finding that plaintiffs could have reasonably anticipated that defense theory, plaintiffs' counsel failed to object during the opening statement, and plaintiffs' counsel ultimately explored the very same issue with one of his own experts during plaintiffs' case-in-chief.

Finally, the Court of Appeals found no merit in plaintiffs' argument that the testimony by a Takata engineer regarding the amount of force applied to release the buckle in certain ball-press testing was speculative or without foundation. The Court of Appeals held that the admissibility of the Takata engineers' testimony estimating forces involved in Takata's testing was within the discretion of the trial court, and the jury could evaluate its weight and credibility.

This was a welcome ruling for automobile manufacturers and for seatbelt manufacturer, Takata, because the Takata "AB" model seat belt buckle at issue here is a popular design used in the vehicles of many automobile manufacturers.

Takata Seat Belts Inc. was represented by David R. Kelly of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Minneapolis, MN and Douglas A. Baker of Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, P.A. in Albuquerque, NM. Fuji Heavy Industries was represented by Thomas M. Klein of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Phoenix, AZ and Patrick M. Shay of Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A. in Albuquerque, NM.

Plaintiffs were represented by Darrel Peters and Susan Lister of Peters & Lister, P.C. in Dearborn, MI.

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