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Pennsylvania Jury Awards $55 Million in Defective Seat Belt Case

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According to Michelin, tire blowouts cause about 23,000 collisions a year, killing about 535 people. A car can be difficult to control once a tire is blown, making the situation very dangerous and often deadly.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated in a 2012 report that “the percentage of vehicles experiencing tire problems is significantly higher among vehicles that rolled over.” Of all SUVs experiencing tire problems in the pre-crash phase, 45 percent rolled over.

This is exactly what happened to Pennsylvania resident Carlos Martinez, 57, who in 2010 was driving to work when a tire on his Acura Integra blew out. Martinez lost control and the vehicle rolled over, causing his head to hit the roof and resulting in serious injuries that left him paralyzed.

Martinez filed a personal injury lawsuit against carmaker Honda, and a Philadelphia jury recently awarded him $55.3 million in damages.

Seatbelt Defects in Rollover Crashes

Martinez’s attorneys filed his case in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, claiming that the seatbelt in the vehicle was defective, allowing Martinez’s head to hit the roof when it should have prevented it. They added that Honda conducted rollover tests in 1992, and were aware this type of injury was possible, but failed to implement any changes to the seatbelt design to improve public safety.

A 2004 Public Citizen report illuminated the inadequacies in belt design and performance in rollover crashes, noting that occupants rely primarily on belts to “prevent ejection of heads, arms, and other body parts,” and that seatbelt failure in rollovers risks “great and even fatal harm.”

“It is critical that belts perform effectively in rollover crashes,” the authors wrote, “yet evidence suggests that safety belts are tragically ineffective in many rollover crashes.” They add that federal data showed 22,000 people who were wearing safety belts died in rollover crashes between 1992 and 2002.

Honda Plans to Appeal

Martinez asserted that Honda should have done more to be sure their safety belts would reduce the risk of injury in a rollover accident. After a nine-day trial, the jury agreed with him, awarding $25 million for past and future noneconomic damages, $15 million to his wife for loss of consortium, about $14.6 million for future medical expenses, and about $720,000 for past and future lost earnings, according to The Legal Intelligencer. Martinez is permanently paralyzed and now uses a wheelchair.

Honda maintains that there is no defect in their seatbelt design, with a spokesman claiming that Martinez’s claim is “wholly without merit.” They plan to appeal the verdict.

This is considered the “largest reported verdict” in a Pennsylvania crashworthiness case since 1994, with attorneys hoping to bring increased awareness to a critical safety design flaw. As noted in Public Citizen’s report, though only three percent of crashes overall are rollovers, nearly a third of all vehicle occupant fatalities result from them, and the numbers are growing.

Improved seatbelt safety design, however—which Martinez’s attorneys say already exists—could easily make rollovers safer and more survivable. Vehicle manufacturers simply need to be sure to install newer, more adequate belt systems to protect occupants.