In April 2004, 38 year-old Richard Mraz got out of his employer’s 1992 Dodge Dakota while it was still running. He didn’t set the parking brake, and the vehicle started moving when it shifted itself from park into reverse. Mraz tried to jump into the moving vehicle, and suffered fatal head injuries for his trouble.
Chrysler admitted the vehicle had a defect that caused the automatic transmission to shift from park to reverse in rare circumstances. Thing is, they admitted it when they sent twelve separate recall notices to the Dakota owner, Mraz’s employer, who ignored them all. But, Mraz’s lawyers said, Chrysler spent time in internal discussions deciding whether to recall the vehicle before actually doing so, so they should be punished, pointing to an internal memo debating the question as a “smoking gun.”
A Los Angeles County jury agreed, finding $5.2 million in compensatory damages for the longshoreman’s death, and attributed 75% to DaimlerChrysler (10% for Mraz’s multiple safety errors, and 15% for his employers’ ignoring the recall notices), and issuing $50 million in punitive damages, all to Chrysler. Most press accounts failed to mention the recall notices or Mraz’s negligence, just regurgitating the plaintiff’s lawyer’s account. (David Shepardson, “DCX loses suit in Dodge owner’s death”, Detroit News, Mar. 8). More on California auto product liability cases.
Interestingly, at least one law firm has already purchased the Google search term “Richard Mraz.”
Update, Mar. 20: Mraz’s attorney responds in the comments. I stand by my characterization and analysis of the case in my post, which both acknowledged the defect in the vehicle and that the defect was a contributing cause to the accident. That Chrysler can’t force its customers to respond to multiple recall notices and thus acknowledges that its recall may be less than 100% effective does not mean that it should face punitive damages (much less a 12:1 punitive:compensatory damages ratio), or even liability given the interceding negligence of Mraz (who failed to set the parking brake) and his employer (which failed to respond to the recall notices).