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Paraplegic's $28M Suit Over Ford’s Seat Belt Design Goes To Trial

Posted by David Siegel on Mar 2, 2015 5:04:00 PM

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Attorney Sandra Ezell, representing Ford, delivers part of her opening statement while seated to demonstrate the position Che-Val Batts was supposedly in prior to the accident that paralyzed him. Click here for a copy of the complaint. Click here to see video from the trial.

Nashville, N.C. A North Carolina state court jury heard opening statements Monday in a $28 million product liability suit claiming a two-point lap seat belt was defectively designed by Ford Motor Co. and caused the paralysis of an 11-year-old child after a traffic accident.

Che-Val Batts, who is now 16, suffered severe spinal injuries in 2010 after the 1999 Ford Escort he was riding in was struck by another vehicle that ran a stop sign. Batts was seated in the rear center seat of the vehicle and wearing a two-point lap belt, while other passengers in the car who weren't wearing seat belts suffered comparatively minor injuries.

During his opening statement for plaintiff Amos Tyndall, who sued Ford on Batts' behalf in 2011, Kent Emison of Missouri-based Langdon & Emison told jurors that Ford knew as far back as the 1960’s that two-point lap belts offer less protection than three-point shoulder belts. He said the collision caused Batts’ body to “jacknife” over the lap belt, while a three-point shoulder belt would have restrained his upper body and prevented his paralysis, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the proceedings

“Many cars are still on the road with a dangerous two-point lap belt, though that’s not something consumers know a lot about,” Emison told CVN. “From a consumer safety standpoint, this is a very relevant case.”

A spokeswoman for Ford declined to comment on the litigation prior to the jury reaching a verdict.

While Emison focused his opening statement on the design of the supposedly defective lap belt, his local co-counsel, Hoyt Tessener of Martin & Jones PLLC, detailed Batts’ injuries and a projected lifetime of costly medical care.

“Why we are here is to get the money that Che-Val needs to lead a productive life,” Tessener told the jury, arguing that Batts’ past and future medical expenses alone totaled more than $11 million, and that $28 million was a reasonable award for a once physically active child who will have to live with a severe disability for another 50 years or more.

“That’s the cost to fix what can be fixed and help what can be helped,” Tessener said.

During her opening statement on behalf of Ford, Sandra Giannone Ezell of Bowman and Brooke LLP’s Richmond office expressed sympathy for Batts but placed the blame for his injuries squarely on the driver of the vehicle who ran a stop sign while allegedly talking on his phone, Alejandro Rios.

“Ford provided a safe car with a safe, compliant seatbelt,” Ezell told jurors while describing how the 1999 Ford Escort met all regulatory safety standards at the time. “The truth is this was a high-speed accident.”

Ezell said the lap belt was designed to be worn below the waist, so that it could catch the hip bone and keep a passenger from being ejected from a car in a collision. However Batts slid forward in his seat and turned to one side prior to the collision, according to Ezell, who said that witness testimony would prove Batts had seat belt marks around his belly button.

Had Batts been wearing a three-point shoulder belt, Ezell said his injuries could have been worse. Ezell argued that while studies showed three-point belts offered greater protection for adults, the same could not be said for children. A small child wearing a shoulder belt could suffer a spinal injury even higher up the body, Ezell told jurors.

Ezell added that in 1999 nearly all major automobile manufacturers used two-point lap belts in the rear seats of their vehicles.

“Safety of all types evolves, and the same is true for seat belts,” Ezell said. “Ford decided against a shoulder belt for this vehicle with safety in mind.”

A recent trial involving similar allegations against Toyota Motor Corp. resulted in a $12.5 million plaintiffs’ verdict. In October a California state court jury found that a lap belt in a Toyota 4Runner was defectively designed and caused the paralysis of a passenger after the sport utility vehicle hit a tree. Bowman and Brooke also represented Toyota in that case, according to court records.  

The trial in North Carolina before Judge Thomas Lock is expected to last up to four weeks.

The plaintiffs are represented by J. Kent Emison of Langdon Emison and by Hoyt Tessener and Megan West of Martin & Jones PLLC.

Ford is represented by Sandra Giannone Ezell and Nathan Colarusso of Bowman and Brooke LLP.

Rios is represented by attorney Kevin Lewis.

The case is Amos Tyndall, as Guardian Ad Litem for Che-Val Batts v. Ford Motor Co. and Alejandro Ortiz Rios, case number 11-CVS-86, in the General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division of Nash County.

David Siegel can be reached at [email protected]

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Topics: Products Liability, automotive