Plaintiffs' attorney David Lira shows jurors a picture during his opening statement of the bus involved in a rollover accident that killed two Chinese tourists in 2010. Click here to see video from the trial. Click here for a copy of the complaint.
Los Angeles, Calif. — Attorneys from two litigation powerhouses, Girardi Keese and Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP, faced off in a product liability trial that began Friday in California state court over a bus dealership’s responsibility for a tour bus rollover that killed two Chinese tourists and injured eight others.
The case stems from a 2010 accident that occurred when a bus owned by tour operator TBE International Inc. rolled over while making a sharp turn during a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The 16-passenger bus, manufactured by Forest River Inc.’s Starcraft division, did not provide seat belts for any passengers except the driver and tour guide seated in the front seat.
David Lira of Girardi Keese, representing the Chinese tourists and their families, told jurors during his opening statement that dealer LA Truck Centers LLC was negligent for selling a defective vehicle to TBE, because the bus’ lack of seat belts meant it did not provide adequate passenger protection in the event of a rollover.
“The incidents in this case involving my clients would have been prevented had the defendant, Los Angeles Truck Centers, spent $168 in equipping the tour bus with seat belts.” Lira told the jury during his opening statement, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the proceedings. “That equates to $12 per seat.”
Federal safety standards do not require buses like the one involved in the rollover incident to be equipped with passenger belts. Lira said the government deferred to the judgment of companies like Starcraft and LA Truck Centers regarding safety design.
Lira claimed LA Truck Centers played a key role in selecting the safety features that would be included on the bus purchased by TBE, and that the dealer’s knowledge the bus would not merely be used as a low-speed shuttle meant it had an obligation to provide a vehicle equipped with passenger belts.
“LA Truck Centers had a hand in providing specifications for their automobiles and were given the critical decision as to what safety features went on the bus,” Lira said. “LA Truck Centers knew what the intended purpose of this bus was.”
The plaintiffs settled with TBE and Starcraft before the trial began, according to court records.
Douglas Robinson of Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP, representing LA Truck Centers, told jurors during his opening statement that as a dealer, his client was not responsible for the design or manufacturing of the bus sold to TBE. He said the Starcraft bus met all federal safety standards, and placed the blame for the accident squarely on the bus driver, Zhi Lu, and TBE owner Betty Chi.
Robinson told jurors that Chi had purchased buses from other dealers, and she had chosen vehicles without passenger belts to save money.
“She knew what she wanted, and she wanted it at the lowest price,” Robinson said.
He said that LA Truck Centers was not negligent in selling a vehicle to a client looking to cut costs in a configuration that passed muster with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
“LA Truck Centers did not make the determination that seat belts should not be standard on this bus,” Robinson said.
Lira did not tell jurors the amount of damages he would ask for following the 25-day trial, but given the number of passengers involved and the alleged extent of their injuries, the damages will likely run into the millions. He said the passengers who survived the accident suffered serious injuries that would require expensive medical care in the future.
Robinson countered that any damages the plaintiffs ask for will include costs for medical care in the United States, despite the fact they have remained in China, where their health care costs are substantially lower, since receiving treatment immediately following the accident.
“That should reveal to you what this case is about,” Robinson said, who then ended his opening statement by quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in asking jurors not to be motivated by sympathy for the plaintiffs’ injuries.
“Sympathy is one of the greatest of human virtues,” Robinson told the jury. “But in a court of law it is an unwelcome visitor.”
Judge J. Stephen Czuleger is presiding over the trial in Los Angeles. CVN will provide a gavel-to-gavel webcast of the full proceedings.
Attorneys for the parties declined to comment on the case.
The plaintiffs are represented by David Lira of Girardi Keese.
LA Truck Centers is represented by Douglas Robinson and Janet Hickson of Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP.
The case is Hairu Chen, et al. v. LA Truck Centers LLC, case number BC469935, in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles.
David Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.