Substantial Jury Award Upheld in Jeep Accident
Recently, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a substantial jury award to a Louisiana couple whose unborn son was tragically injured after their Jeep Grand Cherokee reversed and hit the expecting mother, pinning her against a brick column. This injury, sustained by the mother, resulted in the baby being born with permanent brain damage. Unfortunately, the child survived less than a month, when the couple decided to remove him from life support. This traumatic event is claimed to be the result of DaimlerChrysler’s defective design of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The couple was awarded $5.08 million in 2008, which Daimler Chrysler recently attempted to appeal; however, the state appeals court affirmed the jury award. Critics have alleged that the award was excessive, and that the couple did not prove that the car’s design was actually defective in order to be awarded such an amount. However, their complaint was not the first in regards to the “Park to reverse” problem that year Jeep Cherokee was experiencing.
Analysis of the time line of the case has given rise to speculation that the jury award should not have been upheld. The accident initially occurred on May 21, 1999, and the fatally injured baby was taken off of life support on June 7, 1999. The couple filed their petition against DaimlerChrysler on November 30, 2001, after being informed by a Los Angeles Times reporter that their experience was not unique and that numerous investigations into Jeep Grand Cherokees had been made due to a “Park to Reverse” problem. The matter went to trial on March 31, 2008 and on April 10, 2008 the jury awarded the couple $5.08 million. Following the decision, DaimlerChrysler appealed. The company argued that the trial court erred in not finding that the couple’s case had prescribed, as it was filed two and half years after the date of the accident. Further, the company alleged that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting expert testimony and other evidence that allowed the jury to find a defective product and causation. The state appeals court went through DaimlerChrysler’s allegations one by one and consistently held the company to be at fault.
To start with, DaimlerChrysler alleged that the case should have not been allowed to be heard, since the couple filed their petition over two years past the date of the initial injury. The court recognized that “prescription will not begin to run at the earliest possible indication that a plaintiff may have suffered some wrong…but rather, prescription begins to run against a claimant when he obtains actual or constructive knowledge of facts indicating a cause of action.” (Guillott v. DaimlerChrysler No. 2008-CA-1485 (9/24, 2010)). The court reasoned that the husband had no reason to suspect anything other than misfortune in regards to the Jeep reversing into his wife; there was nothing to indicate that the vehicle had a defective design which caused such an event. Further, the couple was never put on notice or told about the issues surrounding problems relating to the Jeep Cherokee. The manufacturer never took action to notify the couple of these problems even though, on June 9, 1999, only a matter of days after the couple’s son was taken off life support, the company’s local counselor faxed a copy of the couple’s accident to Chrysler headquarters. These facts led the 4th Circuit to hold that prescription had not run and the couple had filed their petition against the company in a timely fashion.
Secondly, DaimlerChrysler argued that expert testimony regarding the design of the Jeep Cherokee should not have been admitted. However, the court held that a trial judge has wide discretion in whom to allow and not allow to testify, and as such, it will not be disturbed by an appellate court unless it is clearly erroneous. What is interesting is that when the expert did testify in regards to the vehicles design, he declared that the Research Testing Center that tests the cars for operation before they are mass produced and sold found that the 93-98 Jeep Grand Cherokee had “unintended powered reverse found to occur only when the transmission was not shifted into gated park…” This in fact, is what most likely occurred to the couple on that fateful day when their unborn son was fatally injured.
Thus, contrary to many critics of this recent decision, the 4th Circuit’s decision follows the rules of law operating over such legal issues. The couple never had any reason to know of or believe that their vehicle had a design defect that would cause such a tragic event. Further, the company never informed them of the numerous complaints regarding the dangerous issue; the only reason the couple found out about the issues was due to a newspaper reporter who called informing them that they were not alone in experiencing such a traumatic event. Thus, the couple filed the petition against the company shortly after they learned of the Jeep Grand Cherokee problem. Further, the expert testimony was allowed by the trial court, and the judge in such instances is allowed wide discretion to allow in what they deem reasonable for the case. The expert testimony revealed that the company had test results that demonstrated the vehicle’s potential problem; however, they failed to resolve such issue. Thus, on appeal, the court held that the trial court’s jury verdict was appropriate, not because the event was so horrendous that they blindly awarded such an amount, but rather, because the law supports such a finding and as such, it has been upheld.
If you find yourself in an accident and believe that a flaw with the car or parts therein may have caused the problem, contact an attorney immediately. By doing so you can begin moving quickly to make sure your case is handled properly and efficiently in order to get the justice and compensation you deserve.