Phila. Judge Urges Upholding $55.3M Crashworthiness Award Against Honda

Gina Passarella, The Legal Intelligencer September 22, 2015

A Philadelphia trial judge has rejected the 25 issues Honda has raised in its appeal of a $55.3 million crashworthiness verdict against the car manufacturer.

Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Shelley Robins New was not persuaded by American Honda Motor Co.’s arguments that Philadelphia was an inconvenient forum or that the court improperly admitted evidence of alternative seat-belt designs that were developed after the car was manufactured but before the accident at issue occurred.

And among a number of other arguments New rejected, she dismissed Honda’s argument that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in Tincher v. Omega Flex, which came down more than four months after the verdict in Martinez v. American Honda Motor, required the granting of a new trial.

New’s Sept. 17 opinion in Martinez was in response to Honda’s appeal of the June 2014 verdict in favor of plaintiffs Carlos Martinez and his wife, Rosita de los Santos de Martinez, after Carlos Martinez was rendered quadriplegic when his 1999 Acura Integra rolled over twice after one of the tires blew.

The jury awarded $25 million to Martinez 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, New said.

The jury found Honda liable under two theories. It found the seat belt in Martinez’s car was defectively designed and that a safer, practicable alternative was available. It also found Honda failed to warn about the risks.

After New denied Honda’s post-trial motions, Honda appealed, raising 25 issues that New lumped into four different categories: claims concerning the denial of judgment notwithstanding the verdict, general claims of trial error, claims regarding subsequently decided authority and a claim regarding the denial of a remittitur.

On the issue of Tincher, the long-anticipated Supreme Court decision that came down in November 2014 affirming that Pennsylvania follows the Restatement (Second) of Torts in products liability cases, New said that ruling did not mandate any change to legal or evidentiary rulings made in the

Martinez case. She said that case was primarily about rejecting the Restatement (Third) of Torts in products liability cases.

“When Tincher was decided, this court read every word of the 137-page slip opinion,” New said. “We did not believe then and do not believe now that Tincher requires a new trial in the instant case.”

Even if Tincher changed the law applicable in Martinez when it came to design defect, it did not speak to failure-to-warn cases.

“As the jury found an independent basis of liability upon failure to warn [in Martinez], if this court erred, such error would be harmless,” New said.

New also disagreed with Honda’s argument as to remittitur. She said the verdicts for noneconomic damages and loss of consortium were consistent with the facts and testimony presented to the jury.

“The evidence, from the family in this case was compelling how the accident turned Mr. Martinez from a family wage earner and head of the household into a helpless person dependent upon others for every aspect of his daily survival,” New said. “Every part of both plaintiffs’ lives were changed drastically and irrevocably. As Mr. Martinez had a life expectancy of an additional 28 years, both plaintiffs will suffer extensive damages.”

The plaintiffs argued Honda used a seat belt that allowed his head to move an unreasonable distance, causing his head to strike the roof when the car rolled over. Honda argued the alternative design the plaintiffs referenced was designed after Martinez’s vehicle was manufactured and therefore should have been excluded from trial.

New rejected Honda’s argument that the evidence was “subsequent remedial measures” that prejudiced the jury. She said the alternative design was actually created before Martinez’s car was manufactured, but even if it wasn’t, the evidence was still admissible.

New said Martinez had to produce that evidence to support the elements of a design-defect claim. She said it was relevant even if it was evidence of “subsequent remedial measures.”

Stewart Eisenberg of Eisenberg, Rothweiler, Winkler, Eisenberg & Jeck represented Martinez and his wife.

“We’re happy for our client that the case can now move forward in the appellate courts,” Eisenberg said. “We are confident that it will be affirmed and we are disappointed in Honda not making any effort to try and resolve the case for our paralyzed client.”

William J. Conroy of Campbell Trial Lawyers represented Honda and did not return a call seeking comment.

Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.

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