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Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. v. Maddox

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

August 30, 2013

NISSAN MOTOR COMPANY, LTD and NISSAN NORTH AMERICA, INC., APPELLANTS
v.
AMANDA MADDOX, APPELLEE

APPEAL FROM LINCOLN CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE DAVID A. TAPP, JUDGE ACTION NO. 10-CI-00082.

BRIEF FOR APPELLANTS: John L. Tate Bethany A. Breetz Louisville, Kentucky David T. Schaefer Anne K. Guillory. Louisville, Kentucky.

ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLANTS: John Tate Louisville, Kentucky.

BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Richard Hay Sarah Hay Knight Somerset, Kentucky J. Paul Long, Jr. Stanford, Kentucky.

ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLEE: Richard Hay Somerset, Kentucky.

BEFORE: COMBS, MAZE, AND NICKELL, JUDGES.

OPINION

COMBS, JUDGE:

Nissan Motor Company, Ltd., and Nissan North America, Inc., (collectively, "Nissan") appeal the judgment of the Lincoln Circuit Court which held them liable for injuries sustained by Amanda Maddox (now Gifford). After our review, we affirm.

On June 6, 2009, after dining with friends, Amanda and her husband, Dwayne Maddox, [1] drove home on Highway 127 in their 2001 Nissan Pathfinder. Pertinent to this appeal, we note that they both had undergone gastric bypass surgery several years earlier; Amanda weighed 240 pounds, and Dwayne weighed 170 pounds.

On this particular evening, as Dwayne and Amanda approached Bowen Road, another driver, Edward Sapp, turned his Nissan Altima from Bowen Road onto Highway 127 and drove in the wrong lane toward the Pathfinder. The driver of a sports-utility vehicle (SUV) in front of the Pathfinder saw Sapp's car bearing down in the wrong lane and managed to swerve into the right shoulder, narrowly averting a collision. However, Dwayne was unable to react, and the two vehicles collided head on. A Pontiac G6 then rear-ended the Pathfinder. (The Pontiac is not, however, involved in our analysis of this case.)

Both the Altima and the Pathfinder were severely damaged. The Pontiac received only minor damage. Sapp, who was greatly intoxicated, died at the scene before first responders arrived. Dwayne suffered a shattered right heel, but he was able to exit the Pathfinder on foot before the occupants of the Pontiac put him into their backseat. The occupants of the Pontiac had not been injured.

Amanda, however, was trapped inside the front passenger seat of the Pathfinder. Rescuers extricated her from the vehicle with hydraulic equipment, and she was then transported by helicopter to the University of Kentucky Medical Center.

Amanda's injuries were extensive. She suffered fractures of her sternum, several ribs, left wrist, vertebrae, and hip. Her hip came out of socket, and the socket itself was fractured; this injury has resulted in permanent nerve damage. A dire condition resulted when Amanda's gastric bypass ruptured. In order for her injuries to heal from the inside out, she maintained an open abdominal wound – with her internal organs visible. She was unable to eat food for seven months. She was hospitalized for 139 days and was later confined at home for several months. Among other complications, she suffered a stroke due to an infection related to the wound. Amanda underwent more than 75 surgical procedures.

Before the crash, Amanda had worked as a home health nurse. Fifteen months after the crash, she attempted to return to work, but she was physically unable to perform her duties as a result of the lasting effects of her injuries. At the time of trial, Amanda was pursuing an advanced degree in order to become qualified for nursing jobs that are less physically demanding.

On February 22, 2010, Amanda filed a lawsuit against Sapp's estate and against Nissan. She alleged that Sapp had negligently caused the crash and that Nissan's design of the Pathfinder's restraint system negligently caused the severity of her injuries. An eight-day trial took place between December 5 and December 15, 2011.

At trial, Nissan argued that it could not have been negligent because the restraint system complied with federal safety regulations and that it had performed correctly. Amanda did not dispute that the Pathfinder's restraint system was compliant. Instead, she argued that the restraint system was unsafe because it was designed only to protect persons weighing approximately 171 pounds – the weight of the test dummy used in federally mandated crash tests. Her theory was that Nissan designed the restraint system to work best on dummies of that size in order to receive a higher safety rating and, therefore, to be more appealing and marketable to consumers.

It was undisputed that a component of the seatbelt, the load limiter, had caused Amanda's seatbelt to spool out approximately nine extra inches of webbing. It was also undisputed that Nissan had added the load limiter to the Pathfinder restraint system in 1999 and that its performance rating in certain government tests improved as a result of the addition of this feature. Amanda's theory was that because the tests were only performed on one size of crash test dummies, Nissan negligently pursued the higher ratings instead of making the vehicle safe for consumers of all sizes.

Marks on Dwayne's seatbelt showed that it had spooled out approximately four inches of webbing. Amanda claimed that the extra webbing, combined with the collapse of the front of her seat, caused her to submarine. "Submarining" occurs when a person slides underneath a seatbelt. Amanda's experts testified that the submarining caused her gastric bypass to rupture. Amanda argued that if Nissan had properly limited the amount of webbing that the load limiter could spool out, she would not have submarined.

Nissan's experts contended that Amanda had not submarined. They touted the load limiter's benefits -- primarily the reduction of chest injuries caused by seatbelts. Nissan claimed that Amanda's injuries were severe because of her weight and that her healing process was delayed because she was a tobacco smoker. Nissan also argued that without the load limiter, Amanda's injuries would have been worse.

The jury ultimately agreed with Amanda. It apportioned 30% of fault to Sapp[2] and 70% of fault to Nissan. It found that Nissan was responsible for $2, 577, 547 in compensatory damages and punitive damages of $2, 500, 000. This appeal follows.

Nissan's first argument is that the trial court should have granted its motion for directed verdict because the Pathfinder was not defective, having achieved high ratings in the federal New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).

When we review a directed verdict motion, we must accept as true the evidence that supports the jury verdict, allowing the prevailing party all reasonable inferences. Lewis v. Bledsoe Surface Mining Co., 798 S.W.2d 459, 461 (Ky. 1990). Unless the verdict is "palpably or flagrantly against the evidence so as to indicate that it was reached as a result of passion or prejudice, " we must affirm the judgment. Id. at 462. (Internal citations omitted).

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) are promulgated by the Secretary of Transportation. See 49 U.S.C. § 30101. FMVSS 208 provides standards of restraint systems and mandates crash tests at 30 miles per hour. NCAP is a program created by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It is a voluntary program that allows manufacturers to test their vehicles using more stringent standards than those dictated by the FMVSS and to receive star ratings reflecting their performance.[3] Five stars are the maximum rating and indicate the best level of crash protection.

NCAP frontal crash tests are based on FMVSS 208 but are conducted at speeds of 35 miles per hour. The crash test dummy used represents a 50thpercentile male weighing 171 pounds. There is a dummy for a 95th percentile male that weighs 223 pounds. The 2001 Nissan Pathfinder achieved a rating of five stars in frontal crash tests utilizing the 50th percentile dummy. Nissan now argues – as it did to the jury – that the test results prove that Amanda survived the crash because of the Pathfinder's safety features. However, compliance with safety regulations does not preclude common-law negligence claims. 49 U.S.C. § 30103(e); see also King v. Ford Motor Co., 209 F.3d 886, 892 (6th Cir. 2000). Therefore, we must examine the evidence under the directed-verdict standard that governs our review.

Amanda's experts presented evidence that the crash between the Pathfinder and the Altima was nearly identical to an NCAP frontal crash test. The delta-v (a physics term for change in velocity) measurement in a test is approximately 38 miles per hour, and the delta-v of the Pathfinder was approximately 38 miles per hour. Like a frontal crash test, the Pathfinder and the Altima collided almost directly head-on; the experts agreed that the variation was minimal. The Pathfinder had one occupant (Dwayne), who weighed the same as a 50th percentile dummy, and one occupant (Amanda), who weighed more than a 95thpercentile dummy. Dwayne's injuries were very similar to those of the crash test dummy, and his injuries were not life-threatening. Amanda's ...


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