CVN sceenshot of plaintiff attorney Jonathan Michaels delivering his opening statement
Santa Ana, CA - A California state court jury heard opening statements Tuesday in a products liability lawsuit claiming a supposedly defective seatbelt design in a Kia vehicle caused an aspiring pop singer’s traumatic brain injury, and the proceedings are being webcast gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.
Plaintiff Kamiya Perry suffered serious injuries in 2019 after the 2015 Kia Forte she was riding in rolled over following a collision with another vehicle. Attorneys for Perry, who was 19 at the time, claim the failure of a safety device called a pretensioner to activate on the passenger side caused Perry’s head to impact the roof when the car rolled over.
Pretensioners are designed to snugly hold passengers in place in the event of a sudden impact, however Kia argues the 2015 Forte’s safety systems worked properly, that a passenger side pretensioner firing would not have provided any meaningful protection to Perry, and that her head did not actually hit the roof of the car.
Perry is seeking over $20 million in future medical expenses and lost wages, and unspecified damages for past and future pain and suffering.
The full trial, expected to run through the end of July, is being webcast and recorded gavel-to-gavel by CVN, which has similarly covered numerous other automotive product liability trials throughout the United States.
During his opening statement on Perry’s behalf, attorney Jonathan Michaels of MLG Attorneys At Law explained to the jury that this is a design defect case, where a manufacturer is accused of intentionally designing a vehicle in a defective manner versus a manufacturing defect case, where a component is alleged to break or malfunction.
Michaels told jurors that Kia intentionally designed the passenger side pretensioner on the 2015 Forte not to fire in an impact like the one Perry experienced, a decision he said one of the automotive safety experts that will testify in the trial characterized as “egregious.”
Michaels agued the benefit of the pretensioner was clear, since Perry's brother, who was driving the car, suffered relatively minor injuries despite being taller than her and the roof on his side of the car being crushed.
“Because he had the benefit of the pretensioner he walked away,” Michaels said.
He told jurors that Kia changed the pretensioner design in 2017 but failed to issue a recall for vehicles with the old design, leaving 395,000 vehicles on the road with the same seatbelts that were in Perry’s vehicle.
The accident caused severe bleeding in Perry’s brain, which Michaels said resulted in a brain injury that will cause Perry to require nearly 24/7 care for the rest of her life. He said she suffers from serious cognitive and memory issues along with major personality changes and emotional outbursts that are characteristic of TBI’s, the effects of which tend to worsen with age.
He did not ask for a specific amount of non-economic damages, but told jurors that Perry’s future medical care would cost $19.6 million based on her life expectancy. He also explained that an estimate of $1.8 million in future lost wages was based on the assumption Perry did not become a successful musician and had a normal career.
CVN screenshot of defense attorney James Feeney delivering his opening statement
Representing Kia, defense attorney James Feeney of Dykema Gossett PLLC told jurors that the impact and angle of the collision caused Perry to slip out of her shoulder belt, which he said is not indicative of a design defect. He said the 2015 Forte's seatbelts met every applicable federal safety standard.
“No pretensioner on any vehicle, the evidence will show, would have prevented her from slipping the shoulder belt,” Feeney said.
Feeney explained that the seatbelts in the Kia Forte had locking mechanisms separate from pretenensioners, and that Kia designed the Forte’s seatbelts based on data that he said showed pretensioners didn’t offer significant protections to front seat passengers like Perry who are riding in vehicles struck on the rear driver’s side.
“Firing it in the design of this accident is of no benefit,” Feeney said.
He said Kia designed the passenger side pretensioners to fire in the event of subsequent impacts, which he said were common and could be more deadly than an initial collision.
Feeney argued that the fact Perry’s head supposedly did not hit the roof indicates her seatbelt worked properly. He suggested her head injuries were caused by the sudden stopping and rotation involved in the accident and were more consistent with hitting the driver’s body or his seat than hitting the roof.
Feeney also claimed that Michaels’ citing 395,000 similar Kia vehicles on the road actually shows the seatbelts are safe, telling jurors that those 395,000 cars travel over 6 billion miles in a year, but that none of them were involved in accidents where injuries were supposedly caused by lack of pretensioners.
“This is the only accident where someone claimed a pretensioner on the passenger side should have deployed,” Feeney said.
Both Feeney and Michaels told jurors that they would rely heavily on expert witness testimony in the coming weeks, in terms of both accident reconstruction and vehicle design and also the severity of Perry’s injury.
Judge Nancy E. Zeltzer is presiding over the trial.
The case is captioned Kamiya Perry v. Kia Motors America, case number 30-2019-01081281-CU-PL-CJC, in the Superior Court of California for Orange County.
E-mail David Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org