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Case Description: A native of Lodi, CA, Christina Mendez was a 20-year-old casino cashier and married mother of three young children at the time of the crash on 12/08/04. Her mother, plaintiff Tracy Lawrence, was driving a 1997 Corolla and Mendez was the front passenger en route to their jobs at the casino. Both were wearing their seat belts as they headed north on a rural stretch of SR-88, a two-lane road. Gerardo Ponce was driving a 1998 Ford Explorer south on SR-88, when he fell asleep after two days without sleep and using methamphetamine, and crossed the center line, crashing into the Corolla. Both vehicles were traveling in excess of 55 mph and there was no braking. The right front (passenger) side of the Explorer smashed into the right front (passenger) side of the Corolla in a slightly offset frontal direction. The Corolla’s front airbags deployed. Ms. Lawrence sustained moderate injuries and was discharged from the Lodi hospital the same day. Mrs. Mendez was severely injured and she was airlifted to U.C. Davis Medical Center. She suffered severe injuries to her head, thoracic and lumbar spine, as well as pelvis and femur fractures. She has significant short term memory deficits and paraplegia. It was undisputed that Mrs. Mendez needs 24-hour attendant care. Plaintiffs claimed $28 million in economic damages for Mrs. Mendez.
Plaintiff’s theory was that the front structure of the subject 1997 Corolla (A pillar, roof side rail and rocker panel) was too weak and allowed too much deformation of the "occupant survival space" where Mendez was seated. Plaintiffs pointed to the 1998 Corolla as an alternative design, since it had a stronger front structure. The 1998 model was the first of a new generation of Toyota Corollas and its front structure was re-designed to perform well in the IIHS offset deformable barrier testing. Plaintiffs also argued that Mrs. Mendez would have been protected if Toyota had used stronger steel with a structural foam filling. Plaintiffs also disputed Toyota's claim that the crash was too severe for any feasible alternative design to protect the occupants. Plaintiffs' liability experts were Dean Jacobson, Ph.D. (structural design), Robert Anderson (accident reconstruction), and Sri Kumar, Ph.D. (biomechanical engineer / injury mechanism).
Toyota’s liability experts were Lee Carr (structures), Thomas Perl, Ph.D. (accident reconstruction), and Dennis Schneider, Ph.D. (biomechanical engineer / injury mechanism). Toyota's experts contended that this crash was especially hazardous to Mendez because the Explorer’s right side fender structure and upper load beam overrode the Corolla's front bumper and penetrated through the windshield, ripped the passenger's airbag and intruded into the Corolla’s right front occupant space. Toyota's experts contended that Mrs. Mendez struck her head on the Explorer's intruding structure (whereas plaintiffs' experts contended Mrs. Mendez struck her head on the Corolla's deformed A-pillar). Mr. Carr explained that the structural improvements Toyota made to the 1998 Corolla would not have been enough to manage all of the energy in this high-speed crash (110+ mph closing speed and a 42+ mph delta-V for the Corolla). Further, if one hypothetically made the Corolla’s structure infinitely rigid, that would further increase the delta-V and increase the Corolla’s post-impact rotation rate to absurdly high levels that would likely kill the occupants. No matter how stout the Corolla’s A pillar had been, the Explorer’s load beam would have still penetrated through the windshield and injured Mendez.
Plaintiffs claimed $28 million in economic damages, plus said the jury should use its discretion in awarding additional noneconomic damages. The jury deliberated for approximately 5 hours and unanimously concluded that the 1997 Toyota Corolla's design was not a substantial factor in causing plaintiff's injuries.
Toyota's attorneys: David Graves, Bard Borkon, Neil Kliebenstein of Bowman and Brooke LLP Minneapolis and San Jose.
Plaintiffs' attorneys: Joe Carcione and Josh Markowitz of the Carcione law firm in Redwood City, CA
Christina Mendez and Raphael Mendez v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.
Venue: Superior Court of San Joaquin County, CA (Stockton, CA)
Trial start date: 4/25/11
Trial end date: 6/17/11
Verdict: 12-0 Defense verdict