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Georgia Court Upholds $4.7 Million Judgment Against Seat Belt Manufacturer

Many car accidents are the result of a defect in the design or manufacture of part of the vehicle. A manufacturer may be held liable under Georgia law for such defective products. A jury may also find a manufacturer failed to adequately warn consumers about certain safety risks associated with a product.

Key Safety Systems, Inc. v. Bruner

On November 19, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a $4.7 million verdict holding a seat belt manufacturer partially liable for the tragic death of a 47-year-old mother of two. In September 2007, the victim was riding in the family’s Jeep Wrangler, which her daughter was driving. For undetermined reasons, the Jeep left the roadway and rolled over. Despite the fact mother and daughter were wearing seat belts, the mother was ejected from the vehicle and died. A witness at the scene testified that the victim, who survived for a short time following the rollover, said she could not understand why she was ejected as she was wearing her seat belt. The victim’s husband later testified his wife was “emphatic” in always wearing her seat belt.

The victim’s husband, acting on behalf of himself and his wife’e estate, sued the company that manufactured and installed the seat belts in the Jeep. (DaimlerChrysler, which produces the Jeep brand, was not named as a defendant.) At trial, the plaintiffs presented expert testimony from a mechanical engineer, who hypothesized “the latch plate at the top portion of the shoulder belt became loose at various points during the rollover, which allowed slack to form in the lap belt, which then allowed [the victim] to be ejected from the vehicle.” The expert also presented a video to the jury depicting this hypothesis, although he emphasized it was not a “simulation of the exact events of the crash in question.”

The defense objected to the expert’s testimony, but the trial judge allowed it. Ultimately, the jury determined the defendant was 80% liable for the accident and awarded the plaintiffs $4.7 million in damages. The jury apportioned the remaining 20% of the blame to the victim’s daughter, who was driving.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict. The court noted the expert’s use of the video to illustrate “certain scientific principles” was “generally permissible” under Georgia law The trial court therefore did not err in admitting the evidence.

The appeals court further rejected the manufacturer’s argument it could not be liable for “failure to warn,” as there was no evidence the victim or her husband would have purchased a different vehicle had they known about the potential for a seat belt failure in the event of a roll over. The court said Georgia does not require “evidence of the particular alternate products” a victim might have purchased in order to establish a product liability claim. Additionally, the jury was entitled to find the victim’s dying declaration established she “did not understand that a risk still existed for ejection when an occupant of a vehicle is properly belted or that an adequate warning by [the defendant] would have prevented the harm.”