STANFORD — A Lincoln County jury has awarded one of the area’s largest verdicts ever — nearly $6.2 million — to a Moreland woman who suffered serious injuries in a 2009 car crash on U.S. 127.
Nissan Motor Co. was assigned to pay the bulk of the award for using a flawed seat belt system in its vehicles, the jury determined.
Edward Sapp, 46, of Louisville was killed in the crash. Police ruled Sapp was drunk and driving on the wrong side of the road when he crashed into Maddox’s 2001 Nissan Pathfinder, which was being driven by her husband, Dwayne Maddox.
According to court documents, the jury assigned 70 percent of the blame ($2.6 million) for Amanda Maddox’s injuries to Nissan and 30 percent ($1.1 million) to Sapp’s estate.
Nissan also has to pay $2.5 million in punitive damages to Maddox, a former home health nurse, because nine of the 12 jurors found Nissan was grossly negligent in disregarding the safety of its passengers with the load limiter seat belt system used in the Pathfinder, court records show.
“Punitive awards are to punish outrageous conduct,” explained Maddox’s lead attorney, Richard Hay of Somerset. “Nine of the 12 jurors were pretty upset with Nissan’s conduct.”
The $3.7 million in compensatory damages was broken down by the jury: $1.2 million for medical care Maddox already has received due to the accident; $50,000 for future medical care; $80,000 for lost wages; $1.2 million for permanent loss of earning power; $750,000 for physical pain and mental anguish already suffered: and $500,000 for future pain and anguish.
Hay said the success of the case hinged on weight differential between Maddox and her husband, which showed Nissan failed to properly test its seat belts. Testimony during the trial showed Nissan used crash test dummies weighing 171 pounds to test the load limiter seat belt system, which allows extra belt material to be released when great pressure is exerted, but did not test for heavier weights.
Dwayne Maddox, who weighed about 170 pounds at the time of the crash, sustained only a broken heel in the crash. Amanda Maddox, who weighed about 240 pounds, “submarined” under the lap belt as it expanded nearly 10 inches, and suffered serious internal injuries when the belt tightened around her abdomen, Hay said. Making matters worse, the front of her seat collapsed on impact, allowing her to be jolted forward even further. She also suffered a broken leg and hip.
“We’d have never proven the case if Amanda was alone in the car,” said Hay, who was assisted by his daughter, Sarah Hay Knight, and Stanford attorney Paul Long.
According to Hay, load limiter seat belt systems included only 3 to 4 inches of extra material when they were first introduced and proved successful in preventing chest injuries in crashes. The amount of extra material kept expanding as car companies discovered they could get higher safety ratings by deploying the systems, even though appropriate testing on their effectiveness in restraining various weights was not conducted. Some systems now have as much as 15-18 inches of extra play in their seat belts, Hay said.
“It was like an arms race” between the companies to add extra material, he said.
The load limiter seat belt systems are becoming increasingly controversial as studies are beginning to show traffic fatalities have risen as much as 35 percent since their introduction, Hay said. He said he’s aware of 10 to 15 other lawsuits involving the systems, none of which named Nissan and all of which were settled out of court.
Maddox’s case was the first to go to trial, he said. Nissan never made a serious attempt to settle with Maddox, offering only to pay a portion of her medical expenses.
“They offered next to nothing,” Hay said.
The $6.2 million verdict is among the highest Hay has seen in these parts in his 30-year law career.
“It’s clearly the largest in Lincoln or Pulaski counties, and it’s got to be one of the largest in southcentral Kentucky,” he said.
Nissan was represented by Louisville attorneys David Schaefer and Anne Guillory.
An appeal is expected.