The Richard Mraz case: $55M in Los Angeles Dodge Dakota trial

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).

12 Comments

  • As a non-American, and as one generally unfamiliar with the legal system in all its myriad complexities, I have a question concerning the power of judges in civil suits (and other circumstances, I suppose). Do they have the power to override jury verdicts/findings? I admit, such an ability would undermine the entire concept of a trial by jury, but in cases like this I feel that such a power should be granted, and used. The defendant is clearly not at fault for the errors made by the unfortunately deceased Mr. Mraz. If anything, his employer is criminally responsible for his death for ignoring repeated recall notices. Depraved indifference to human life and all that. So, I have to ask, can and/or will a judge toss out the award and division of blame assigned by the jury?

  • A judge can set aside jury verdicts in some situations, but I am not an expert on when exactly that is. In any case, judges have the power to avoid MANY of the cases that get discussed on this site but fail to us those powers, often even in egregious and obvious cases.

    This generation of judges seems to have been taught that every case deserves “its day in court” and to not overeride juries, basically ever.

    “Smoking gun” has bcom the most overused phrase since… um, I’m having a hard time coming up with a good example. “Duh”, maybe. Or perhaps “like”.

  • Deoxy has it essentially correct.

    Judges have the power to do so, but only under certain circumstances and it is rarely used.

  • In this case, an appellate judge can (and, in fact, must) set aside the punitive damages at least, because the conduct that is being punished was not connected to the actual damages.

  • Deoxy, you left out “well”. This is especially true for interviews in the sports world.

    Q: What do you think about blah blah blah?

    A: Well, blah blah blah.

  • The firm that purchased the term “Richard Mraz” was the firm that represented him.

  • I take Ted’s word that there were recalls about the truck slipping from park into reverse. I still can’t not understand the case. The man stopped the truck, got completely out of the truck, and then the truck slipped from Park into Reverse? Wouldn’t the possibility that the man did not fully move the shift lever – Reverse is just before Park – be more likely? How did he get the head injury? How did his head injury extend to the jury?

  • I’m a little confused about why this case is so shocking. This one just doesn’t strike so high on my indignity scale.

    If anything, the Mraz case is an example of comparative fault at work. Regardless of the mechanics of an automatic shifting from P to R, Chrysler acknowledged some problem when it issued the recall.

    In any event, it’s an interesting story – not to mention it reads like a torts exam hypothetical.

  • Usually punitive damages involve conduct beyond what’s described in the post. Something more severe has to be going on. I discuss this a little (but only a little) in a post I just did in the context of predatory lending.

  • This case is most shocking because the plaintiff received punitives based on conduct unrelated to the tort.

  • Yes, the case is shocking (and ridiculous) because the company in question went far abov and beyond their duty to warn, then got hit with punitives, anyway. What else could they have done to avoid punitive damage? Come to the guy’s house, steal the vehicle, have the work performd, and then returned?

  • I appreciate the discussion of the $55 million verdict against DaimlerChrysler Corporation in the lawsuit brought by the family of Richard Mraz, and wish to address certain points raised. Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, served as trial counsel for plaintiffs.

    On April 13, 2004, Mr. Mraz suffered fatal head injuries when the 1992 Dodge Dakota pickup truck he had been driving at his work site, the San Pedro/Long Beach Maritime Terminal, ran him over after he exited the vehicle believing it was in park.

    The jury found that a defect in the Dodge Dakota’s automatic transmission, called a park-to-reverse defect, played a substantial factor in Mr. Mraz’s death and that DaimlerChrysler was negligent in the design of the vehicle. Mr. Mraz was only 38 years old when he died, and left behind a wife and three children.

    The case is significant beyond the tragedy suffered by the Mraz family. The defect that caused the death of Mr. Mraz affects over a million vehicles on the road today, including 1988 to 2003 Dodge Dakota pickup trucks and 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees.

    Unfortunately, DaimlerChrysler’s response in published reports has been to continue to blame Mr. Mraz for the accident. This is precisely the kind of blame game the jury found an inadequate answer to a serious public safety threat. DaimlerChrysler’s ongoing indifference to public safety was what prompted the jury to find that DaimlerChrysler acted with malice and with a conscious disregard for the health and safety of others.

    Mr. Mraz was not the first person to die from this defect, but likely the thirteenth person. There have been hundreds of accidents where people suffered debilitating physical injuries when the DaimlerChrysler vehicles they were driving moved into reverse when the driver believed that he or she had placed the shift selector of the vehicle in the park position.

    At trial, the eyewitness testimony was that Mr. Mraz was out of the vehicle and several feet away from the vehicle when the vehicle started to move in reverse. The evidence also showed that if the vehicle had been placed in reverse, it would have begun to move immediately; if Mr. Mraz had put the vehicle in reverse, there would be no way Mr. Mraz could be out of the vehicle and several feet away when the vehicle began to move.

    Plaintiffs showed that a driver can place the vehicle into what appears to be the park position and the vehicle remains stationary for several seconds and sometimes longer — even after the driver removes his foot from the brake and exits the vehicle. From this position, the vehicle can have a dangerous delayed engagement of powered reverse, and, in the case of Mr. Mraz, the vehicle ran over him once he had exited the vehicle.

    The evidence plaintiffs presented at trial included the fact that DaimlerChrysler was aware of well over a thousand park-to-reverse complaints in several of their vehicles with the same defective transmission.

    When DaimlerChrysler finally determined that it had to do something about the problem in 2000 due to an ongoing National Highway Transportation & Safety Administration investigation of the Dodge Dakota truck, it engaged in an inexpensive recall that DaimlerChrysler’s engineers knew and testified would not fix the problem. Indeed, in addition to finding that the vehicle was defective, the jury also found that DaimlerChrysler was negligent in failing to adequately recall or retrofit the Dodge Dakota that killed Mr. Mraz.

    DaimlerChrysler had twenty years to fix the park to reverse transmission defect in the Dodge Dakota that lead to Mr. Mraz’s death in 2004. Refusing to act as a responsible corporate citizen and falsely blaming Mr. Mraz for his own death explains why the jury imposed $50 million in punitive damages against DaimlerChrysler.