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Russo v. Takata

South Dakota
Aug 02, 2007



After nearly three weeks of trial, on August 2, 2007, a jury in Rapid City, South Dakota returned a verdict in favor of the seat belt manufacturer defendants, Takata Corporation and TK Holdings Inc., in a case where plaintiffs claimed that both front seat belts had come unlatched during a rollover crash involving a 1996 Geo Tracker. The seat belt restraint systems in the vehicle were manufactured by Takata. Plaintiffs claimed that the front seat belts had been worn but that the buckles unlatched due to inertial loading from a vertical impact during the rollover. The Takata seat belt buckle at issue was the TK-52 buckle-a broadly accepted seat belt buckle used since the mid-1980s by many U.S. and Japanese automobile manufacturers. Evidence was presented showing that over 60 million TK-52 seat belt buckles have been installed in vehicles sold in the U.S.

The rollover accident happened on a two-lane highway near Rapid City, South Dakota on April 15, 1999. On that day, 16-year-old Natasha Pendergrass, the driver, and her half sister, Jessica Russo, the front seat passenger, were on their way to school in their mother's 1996 Geo Tracker, when they spun off the icy road and rolled down a steep embankment. The front seat passenger was thrown into the back seat and the driver was half ejected from the passenger side front window. The car rolled on top of the driver, pinning her, and she died at the scene from what defense experts described as compressive asphyxia. The front seat passenger, 10-year-old Jessica Russo, was not seriously injured in the crash. She claimed that she had put her seat belt on either prior to the accident or when the car started to spin out. The investigating police officer testified at trial that Jessica Russo told him in an interview shortly after the accident that her sister, the driver, had not worn her seat belt.

Plaintiffs sued the Takata defendants, claiming that both the occupants' seat belt buckles had "inertially unlatched" in the crash. They claimed that marks on the driver's torso and abdomen were caused by the seat belt. The defense responded that the marks on the driver were from being pinned under the roof of the overturned vehicle.

Plaintiffs showed videotapes of laboratory tests causing seat belt buckles to unlatch from inertial impacts. The defendants responded with evidence that most seat belt buckles can be made to unlatch by inertial impacts directly against the buckle, whereas, in real world crashes, "inertial unlatching" of buckles mounted inside vehicles does not happen. Defendants presented testing and expert testimony that, in actual rollover crashes such as that involved here, the impact forces hitting the outside of the vehicle do not cause buckles mounted up inside the vehicle to unlatch. The defendants presented evidence that the TK-52 seat belt buckle was well designed, thoroughly tested and properly manufactured, and the driver in this accident died because she drove too fast for conditions and because she failed to wear her seat belt.

The 12-person jury deliberated for approximately seven hours before returning a verdict in favor of the Takata defendants.

Case: Russo, et al. v. Takata Corporation and TK Holdings Inc.
Court File No.:
Court: Seventh Judicial Circuit, Pennington County, South Dakota

The Takata defendants were represented by David R. Kelly and Nathan H. Bjerke of Bowman and Brooke LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota and by Patricia A. Meyers, Costello, Porter, Hill, Heisterkamp, Bushnell & Carpenter, LLP, Rapid City, South Dakota.

The plaintiffs were represented by J. Kevin King and Peter Campbell King of Cline, King & King, P.C., Columbus, Indiana and George J. Nelson of Abourezk Law Firm, Rapid City, South Dakota.

Expert witnesses for the plaintiffs were Michael J. McCort, P.E. of Lafayette, Colorado on accident reconstruction; George R. Nichols, II, M.D. of Louisville, Kentucky on forensic pathology; William H. Muzzy, III, P.E. of Pensacola, Florida on restraint system design and performance; Robert H. Arnio, Ph.D. of Rapid City, South Dakota on psychology and post-traumatic stress disorder; and Donald L. Frankenfeld of Rapid City, South Dakota on economics.

Defense experts were Ronald Woolley, P.E., Ph.D. of Provo Utah on accident reconstruction; David F. Peruski of Walled Lake, Michigan and Raymond F. Neathery, Ph.D. of Edmond, Oklahoma on restraint system design and performance; Catherine Ford Corrigan, Ph.D. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on biomechanics; John E. Pless, M.D. of Indianapolis, Indiana on forensic pathology and David D. Jones, Ph.D., St. Paul, Minnesota on economics.

Trial Team

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