CVN screenshot of plaintiff's attorney Brett Turnbull delivering his opening statement.
Los Angeles - Nissan North America should pay up to $231 million for allegedly withholding information from the public about a brake defect that caused a fatal traffic accident, an attorney told a California state court jury in a trial currently underway.The auto manufacturer supposedly had knowledge that a software component in the brakes of an Infiniti sport utility vehicle could fail and render the car unstoppable, according to Brett Turnbull of Cory Watson Attorneys.
Turnbull told jurors that such a failure caused an elderly driver to slam into the side of a minivan carrying a woman and her two young daughters, killing all three in 2012. The children’s father, Hilario Cruz, and other family members subsequently filed a wrongful death and product liability lawsuit against Nissan.
During opening statements on June 26, Watson told jurors that he would ask for an award of $77 million for each of the individuals killed in the crash.
“Nissan acted with reckless disregard for the human lives of others,” Turnbull told the jury, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the trial.
Nissan argues that the crash was caused by the driver of the 2004 Infiniti QX56, Solomon Mathenge hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal, and that the brakes in the SUV were not defective.
Turnbull claims that Nissan received nearly 4000 complaints about brake problems in the QX56 and other vehicles, but failed to issue a recall and did not warn consumers about the potential danger.
Nissan also faces claims from Mathenge, who was initially charged with vehicular manslaughter after the collision. Those charges were only dropped in December of last year. Cruz sued Mathenge after the accident, but later dropped those claims and Mathenge joined his lawsuit against Nissan.
Mathenge’s attorney, Paul Kiesel of Kiesel Law LLP, told jurors that he would seek punitive damages against Nissan but did not specify the amount during his opening statement.
“The vehicle he was driving took the lives of three people,” Kiesel said. “Every waking moment he has to live with that recognition.”
After charging Mathenge, prosecutors became aware that the brake failure Mathenge claimed he experienced was similar to the failures alleged in a federal class action lawsuit against Nissan involving the same Infiniti vehicles. Nissan settled the case in 2014 in a deal that offered compensation of up to $800 for 350,000 2004-2008 Nissan Titans, Armadas and Infiniti QX56’s.
That lawsuit dealt also with supposedly faulty delta stroke sensors, the software element that Mathenge and Cruz’s attorneys claim caused the crash. The plaintiff class accused the auto manufacturer of withholding information about the defect from the public “to [Nissan's] significant financial gain.”
Prosecutors interviewed class members in the federal lawsuit, and after determining that they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mathenge’s vehicle didn’t have the same alleged defect, dropped the charges against him.
In court papers and in their opening statement on Monday, Nissan claimed that the accident was entirely Mathenge’s fault.
“Mr. Mathenge was speeding,” Thomas Klein of Bowman & Brooke LLP told jurors. “He made a terrible mistake. Possibly because he’s confused. What’s the mistake? Stepping on the gas pedal when he thought he was stepping on the brake.”
The trial before Judge Randolph Hammock is expected to run through the month of July. CVN will provide a gavel-to-gavel webcast of the full proceedings.
The case is Cruz v. Nissan North America, et al., case number BC493949, in the Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County.
E-mail David Siegel at [email protected]