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Judge Issues Defense Verdict in Seat Belt Class Action Trial

California
Jan 16, 2009

Zavala v. Takata Corp.

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.

Los Angeles, CA (January 16, 2009) - A California judge issued a defense verdict for Takata in this class action trial.  The decision is a major win for the automotive industry in similar "no injury" claims.

Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis agreed that Takata Corporation did perform proper testing on their TK-52 seat belt buckles and that plaintiff failed to show he suffered actual injury, potentially ending a seven year legal battle. Brought under the California Unfair Competition Law, plaintiff and class representative Lupe Zavala sought restitution of the purchase price of millions of seat belt buckles, plus an injunction potentially requiring re-testing and replacement of those buckles in California vehicles. The restitution amounts claimed ranged as high as $247 million prior to trial. Plaintiffs were represented by five different law firms, including the Susman Godfrey firm, in this certified class action.

Plaintiff brought this "consumer protection" case based on the overriding allegation the Takata TK-52 buckle was not tested as required by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 209 and could partially engage leaving passengers improperly buckled in the event of a crash. Plaintiff claimed Takata and co-defendant United States Testing Company, Inc. skipped a provision of 209 requiring examination of the buckle for partial engagement. Plaintiff claimed that Takata had failed to disclose this alleged "skipped test" to automobile manufacturers and, indirectly, to vehicle purchasers.

The case was tried before Judge Duffy-Lewis last October and November, and lasted three weeks. The parties are not allowed to have a jury trial for claims under the Unfair Competition Law. The parties were ordered to file post-trial briefs, and Judge issued her written "tentative decision" in favor of the defendants on January 16, 2009.

At trial, Takata demonstrated convincingly that USTC and Takata did follow appropriate compliance test procedures as provided by Section 209 - including the partial engagement provisions. Moreover, Takata demonstrated that in fact there is no obligation to perform any testing in order to comply with Section 209. In addition, Takata showed that another independent NHTSA-authorized testing lab had passed the buckles, and that the Section 209 testing done on the Takata buckles was observed, approved and accepted by NHTSA. Automotive manufacturers and NHTSA have known about these claims since at least the early 1990s and both have rejected them.

In California, Proposition 64 (passed by the voters in 2004) requires a person seeking to represent claims on behalf of others must show injury in fact, and lost money or property as a result of the defendant's alleged unfair competition or unfair advertising. In her written decision, Judge Duffy-Lewis notes "the Court listened intently to the Representative Plaintiff Zavala's testimony in this regard and found his alleged emotional injuries unpersuasive and unimpressive." Plaintiff also admitted he is not out of pocket any money as a result of his purchase of a vehicle equipped with TK-52 seatbelt buckles, as well as testifying the buckle performed well in a crash when his son was driving the vehicle.

Lastly, Takata argued the alleged conduct is not likely to deceive any reasonable consumer, because testing methodology is not material to the consumer's purchasing decision. The Court agreed, noting Plaintiff Zavala testified he did not rely on testing information when purchasing his vehicle.

The Takata TK-52 buckle was installed in over 80 different models of vehicles manufactured over a 24 year period.

Case Name: Lupe Zavala, et al. v. Takata Corporation, et al.
Venue: Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles
Case No.: 277327
Judge: Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis
Trial dates: October 20 - November 7, 2008

Attorneys for Plaintiff:
Taras Kick
James Strenio
THE KICK LAW FIRM

Drew D. Hansen
Daniel J. Shih
SUSMAN GODFREY L.L.P.

Robert M.N. Palmer
THE LAW OFFICES OF PALMEROLIVER, P.C.

Attorneys for Takata Corporation:
David R. Kelly (co-lead counsel) of BOWMAN AND BROOKE LLP and Michael H. Carpenter (co-lead counsel) of CARPENTER LIPPS & LELAND LLP; with Mark V. Berry and Robert S. Robinson of BOWMAN AND BROOKE LLP and Michael N. Beekhuizen and Katheryn M. Lloyd CARPENTER LIPPS & LELAND LLP.

Attorneys United States Testing Company, Inc. (now known as SGS U.S. Testing Company Inc.):
Matthew S. Steinberg of GREENBERG, TRAURIG, LLP and Laurence L. Hummer of LAW OFFICES OF LAURENCE L. HUMMER, ALC

Experts at trial for Plaintiffs:
Kenneth Brown, seat belt design and testing
Thomas Feaheny, manufacturer reliance
Roy Weinstein, remedies

Experts at trial for Defense:
Jeffrey Pearson, seat belt design and testing
Michael Klima, seat belt design and consumer usage
Dr. Murray Mackay, foreign standards and compliance
Robert Hellmuth, NHTSA policies and procedures
Dr. John Schouten, consumer behavior
Donald Fuller, vehicle valuation and depreciation

For additional information, please contact Amanda Walsh, Director of Marketing, Bowman and Brooke LLP, 612.672.3248 or Amanda.walsh@bowmanandbrooke.com

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