Daphne Leray, et al. v. Nissan North America, Inc., et al.

After a three-week trial, a Louisiana state court jury returned a verdict for Nissan North America, Inc., finding no defect in the crashworthiness or braking system of a 1995 Nissan pick-up. Daphne Leray, et al. v. Nissan North America, Inc., et al., 17th JDC No: 80,852, verdict rendered September 1, 2006. Update: The verdict was overturned on unrelated grounds and a new trial has been ordered.

Plaintiff, Daphne Leray, was a front seat passenger in a 1995 pick up driven by her boyfriend, Jamie Adams. While traveling on a two lane road outside of Thibodaux, Louisiana, Mr. Adams allowed the vehicle to drift off the roadway onto the gravel shoulder on the right, before overcorrecting to the left, losing control and skidding across the roadway into a ditch on the left side of the highway. His vehicle rolled and vaulted into a telephone pole, with the passenger side A-pillar making the first contact with the pole. Daphne Leray was rendered quadriplegic, while Jamie Adams walked away virtually unscathed.

Ms. Leray sued Nissan North America, Inc., alleging that the vehicle’s brake system was defectively designed, because it provided only rear wheel anti-lock brakes, rather than four-wheel anti-lock brakes. The plaintiff also alleged that the “roof structure” of the vehicle was inadequate, and should have been designed to withstand the force of the impact with the pole. Plaintiff also sued the State of Louisiana for a defective roadway and Entergy Louisiana, LLC for the placement of the pole.

In an unusual twist, plaintiff also sued her initial treating doctors in a separate lawsuit, claiming that they failed to properly safeguard her cervical spine, allowing her to be without cervical protection for three days before diagnosing spinal fractures and a spinal cord injury. That suit went to trial in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana in 2002, resulting in an $18 million verdict against the doctors. Because of statutory caps to recovery in medical malpractice litigation in Louisiana, plaintiffs received approximately 1.8 million in cash as well as reimbursement for all future medicals from the doctors. Due to pre-trial rulings, however, Nissan was forced to present the fault and damages caused by the doctors, which plaintiffs denied in the second litigation.

Nissan defended the brake defect allegations by demonstrating that Jamie Adams failed to apply any steering input to the vehicle as it skidded across the roadway and into the ditch. Front wheel ABS systems, although designed to allow for steering for heavy braking, would have provided no benefit in Leray’s accident because no steering was incorporated. Additionally, Nissan defended its selection of rear wheel only ABS systems in the early 1990s as state-of-the-art and appropriate to remedy rear-wheel lock-up common in pick-ups.

Regarding the crashworthiness claims, Nissan demonstrated that the vehicle impacted the pole with the passenger side A-pillar (and the vehicle upside down) at between 16 and 18 mph. Nissan asserted that plaintiffs’ expert, Keith Friedman, was unable to provide a vehicle in production which would have withstood the localized forces exerted on the Nissan’s A-pillar, and therefore Nissan successfully argued that the design necessary to withstand such forces was not, and is not, available in passenger vehicles. Nissan also conducted testing in which various 1995 model year vehicles were dropped at 16 mph onto their A-pillar against an elevated pole. The damage seen by other vehicles was consistent with, or worse than, the damage sustained by the Nissan.

Nissan also rebutted the finite element analysis modeling conducted by Mr. Friedman which was intended to demonstrate feasible alternative designs. Instead, Nissan presented evidence to show that the modeling was inaccurate and scientifically unsound.

Plaintiffs’ sought approximately $18 million in damages (legal interest would have raised the total to nearly $25 million). The jury returned a verdict holding Jamie Adams 50% at fault and each of the two doctors 25% at fault.

Plaintiffs experts were Keith Friedman and Murat Okcouglu from Friedman Research, and Anthony Sances of Biomechanics Institute, all of Santa Barbara, California.

Expert witnesses for the defense were Garry Bahling, Vehicle Assessment Consulting, Inc. of Metamora, Michigan, on roof design and testing; Robert Rucoba, Carr Engineering of Houston, Texas, on accident reconstruction; Larry Petersen, Consulting Automotive Engineer of Grosse Point Park, Michigan, on brake design and testing; and Kelly Kennett, InSciTech of Suwanee, Georgia, on finite element analysis modeling.

Plaintiffs were represented by Jerald Block and Matthew Block of Block Law Firm in Thibodaux, Louisiana and Darryl Carimi of Carimi Law Firm in Metairie, Louisiana.

Nissan was represented by Keith W. McDaniel and Lance B. Williams of McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch of Covington, Louisiana.