On Friday, February 24, 2017, a jury in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana returned a defense verdict for Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. and Nissan North America, Inc., rejecting plaintiff’s claim that a manufacturing defect in a u-joint in her mother’s 2007 Infiniti G35S failed and caused the fatal crash that gave rise to the lawsuit. Keith W. McDaniel and Quincy T. Crochet of McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch, LLC represented the Nissan entities.
The single vehicle crash at issue occurred on April 9, 2013. As Bridget Desselle traveled westbound on I-10 in the inside lane of travel, the Infiniti moved to the right, entered the outside lane of travel, and forced a motorist to move onto the shoulder to avoid a collision with the Infiniti. Desselle then moved to the left and drove off the left side of the interstate at a high rate of speed. After leaving the roadway, the Infiniti struck a tree head-on, triggering the Event Data Recorder (“EDR”) and deployment of the airbags. That impact also redirected the vehicle so that it became airborne and crashed into another tree while rolling passenger side leading. First responders observed no signs of life, and the coroner pronounced Desselle dead at the scene.
Law enforcement personnel found Desselle’s cell phone in or near her hand and determined that the accident occurred because Desselle was distracted and drove the vehicle in an unsafe manner. Plaintiff claimed instead that Desselle did not cause the accident. Using data from the EDR and a statement from a witness Ben T. Railsback, concluded the vehicle’s u-joint separated on-roadway resulting in Desselle’s inability to prevent the crash. (The u-joint is one component that connects the steering wheel to the steer tires. If separated, movement of the steering wheel does not reach the steer tires.) Additionally, testifying as a mechanical engineer, Mr. Railsback claimed that the u-joint – which was found separated during a post-accident inspection of the heavily damaged vehicle – contained a manufacturing defect because staking on it appeared short. This shortened staking, he suggested, ultimately allowed the u-joint to separate despite having never caused a problem during the vehicle’s past use of approximately 150,000 miles.
Peter A. Luepke, who reconstructed the crash for the Nissan entities, utilized the EDR data, statements and depositions of multiple witnesses, vehicle inspections, scene survey and evidence from the scene. He explained that the EDR captured seven seconds of pre-impact data and that it recorded steer data in one-second intervals. His reconstruction showed that Desselle indeed steered to the left, but that the EDR did not capture the left steer input because it occurred between the one-second sample points. His reconstruction also confirmed that Desselle’s left steer was an overcorrection that caused the Infiniti to enter a counterclockwise yaw as it traveled off the roadway. While Desselle steered to the right after overcorrecting to the left, her effort came too late to allow for a correction of the travel path because of her speed and the very short distance she traveled before exiting the roadway. Subsequent right steers made after the vehicle exited the roadway into wet grass also could not completely reverse Desselle’s travel path. Nevertheless, Mr. Luepke’s reconstruction showed that the vehicle’s travel path and positioning of its tires after leaving the roadway demonstrated a partial reversal of the counterclockwise yaw through right steer input translated to the steer tires. That could not have occurred had the u-joint been separated as claimed by plaintiff.
Nicholas J. Durisek, Ph.D. also testified for the Nissan entities regarding plaintiff’s claims of a manufacturing defect. (Dr. Durisek additionally provided opinions pre-trial regarding plaintiff’s design defect theory that the u-joint should have utilized a different staking technique. On motion for summary judgment, the trial court dismissed plaintiff’s design defect claim.) At trial, Dr. Durisek demonstrated that witness marks left on the u-joint only could have been made had the u-joint been intact at the time the vehicle crashed head-on into the tree. Additionally, he showed that even a complete removal of the staking did not result in separation of the u-joint and that the staking about which plaintiff complained was not “short” but instead deformed as the result of crash damage. Finally, to rebut Mr. Railsback’s claim that it is impossible for a vehicle to yaw counterclockwise on pavement following right steer inputs, he displayed testing video of that exact phenomena and explained that speed, surface friction, and distance must be considered when predicting a vehicle’s path of travel in response to steer inputs.
Plaintiff, the only surviving child of Bridget Desselle, sought a total of more than $1.2 million dollars. The jury of 8 unanimously rejected her request and rendered a defense verdict in favor of the Nissan entities.