The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s decision to award a couple $13 million in punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler Corp.
The lawsuit said 8-month-old Joshua Flax was riding in the back seat of a 1998 Dodge Caravan in Nashville in 2001 when the vehicle was rear-ended, causing the front passenger seat to collapse and the passenger to strike him, fracturing his skull.
In a 3-2 ruling filed July 24, the court said the automaker acted recklessly and the award of punitive damages was not excessive. However, the court reversed a lower court’s decision to also award the victim’s mother over $6 million in punitive damages for emotional distress.
Last year, DaimlerChrysler sold 80 percent of its interest in Chrysler, which is now a privately held company.
Michael Palese, a spokesman for Chrysler LLC, called the ruling “disappointing” and said the company is considering its legal options.
In the original trial, the family tried to prove the automaker knew the minivan seats were defective but failed to fix the problem or warn consumers.
Chrysler argued the seats were designed to yield in rear-end collisions to protect the person in the seat. They also said their seats were similar to ones used by other manufacturers and exceed federal regulations.
“Chrysler knew these collapsing minivan seats had been killing and injuring children for years just like Joshua Flax,” said George Fryhofer III, an attorney for parents Jeremy Flax and Rachel Sparkman.
“Notwithstanding that knowledge, Chrysler never warned a soul about the dangers to children in their family minivan.”
According to court records, a former Chrysler employee, Paul Sheridan, also testified for the family and said he investigated minivan seat problems in the 1990s after getting reports of injuries to children being struck by the seats during rear-end collisions.
Sheridan was fired after he told the company he wanted to go to federal regulators about the issue.
Justice Janice Holder, writing for the majority opinion, said evidence presented at trial showed the automaker’s executives failed to heed warnings about the seats’ safety.
“Not only did (Chrysler) fail to warn customers or redesign its product, (Chrysler) hid the evidence and continued to market the Caravan as a vehicle that put safety first,” she wrote.
A jury initially awarded the couple $98 million in punitive damages in the 2004 verdict, which was later reduced $13 million for wrongful death and $6 million for emotional distress.
The family was also awarded $5 million in compensatory damages, but those were upheld by an appeals court.
“Chrysler’s position has always been that this case was never a punitive damages case,” Palese said.
The jury found that the driver of the truck that struck the van, Louis Stockell, was also at fault in the death.
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