A very belated update to our earlier posts of 2004 and 2005. As we stated in November 2004:
In 2001, Louis Stockell, driving his pickup at 70 mph, twice the speed limit, rear-ended a Chrysler minivan. Physics being what they are, the front passenger seat in the van collapsed backwards and the passenger’s head struck and fatally injured 8-month old Joshua Flax. The rest of the family walked away from the horrific accident. Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Butler argued that Chrysler, which already designed its seats above federal standards, should be punished for not making the seats stronger — never mind that a stronger and stiffer seat would result in more injuries from other kinds of crashes because it wouldn’t absorb any energy from the crash. (Rear-end collisions are responsible for only 3% of auto fatalities.) Apparently car companies are expected to anticipate which type of crash a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly. The $105M verdict includes $98M in punitives.
We were incomplete in the accident description. Flax’s grandfather, driving the minivan, noticed Stockell coming up fast behind him–and moved into the left lane of oncoming traffic, which was unfortunately where Stockell also had moved when he slammed into the rear of the minivan. That’s still mostly or entirely Stockell’s fault for going so fast in a residential neighborhood, but, remember: slow-moving traffic, always go to the right.
The remaining $27+ million of the decision was appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. As Beck and Herrmann note, the evidentiary rulings are appalling–anecdotal evidence of other accidents was introduced, real-world empirical statistical evidence showing the vehicle was safe was excluded, the fact that the expert had been caught lying about his testing did not merit a new trial, the evidence of a “safer alternative” is non-existent but held sufficient–resulting in an affirmance of the liability verdict. But, at least, the court reversed the punitive damages on the grounds that regulatory compliance showed good-faith efforts towards safety, citing Tennessee Code Ann. §29-28-104. The court also threw out an emotional distress claim on grounds of lack of evidence, though the affirmed $3.7 million noneconomic damages award should be some solace for that loss. Flax v. DaimlerChrysler, No. M2005-01768-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 3813655 (Tenn. App. Dec. 27, 2006); Jenner & Block report. There is no record of further litigation. If I read McIntyre v. Balentine, 833 S.W.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992), correctly, Tennessee does not have joint and several liability, so, per the jury verdict, Chrysler is only 50% liable for the $5 million in economic and non-economic damages, with reckless driver Louis Stockell on the hook for the other $2.5 million. The decision received no mainstream press coverage.