Kevin D. Lawson ET AL. v. Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America, et al.
Louisiana Supreme Court Reinstates Jury Verdict for Mitsubishi
(September 2006)

Keith W. McDaniel and Lance B. Williams obtained a ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court reinstating a jury verdict in favor of Mitsubishi after two years of appeals.

On January 9, 1999, Kelli Lawson was driving her 1996 Mitsubishi Galant, when she stopped the vehicle and honked her horn. Upon honking her horn, the airbag deployed breaking both of her thumbs and injuring her right wrist. Ms. Lawson then underwent several surgeries and therapy, and claimed at trial to be permanently disabled from her job as a court clerk.

She filed suit on June 10, 1999 against Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America, Inc., alleging a manufacturing defect in the clockspring, a component which routes electrical wires to the airbag and other devices in the steering wheel. A jury trial was conducted from September 29, 2003 through October 8, 2003, and a twelve person jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Mitsubishi. Thereafter, the trial court granted plaintiffs’ Motion for JNOV on liability and ordered a new trial on damages. The matter was appealed and the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the JNOV and rendered damages in excess of $1,000,000.

The Louisiana Supreme Court granted writs and reversed the Third Circuit’s and trial court’s rulings, reinstating the jury verdict.

The Louisiana Supreme Court held that the lower courts improperly applied the evidentiary doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (Latin for Athe thing speaks for itself). The Court further determined that the lower courts’ misapplication of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur erroneously made it Adispositive of the issue of defendant’s negligence.

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is in actuality purely an evidentiary doctrine, and does not carry plaintiffs’ burden of proof. Rather, it shifts the burden to defendants to prove that the malfunction was not a result of a defect in manufacture.

The court found initially that the doctrine should not have been used in the subject case. Louisiana law holds that res ipsa loquitur should only apply in instances where the evidence sufficiently Aexcluded inference of the plaintiffs’ own responsibility or the responsibility of others besides defendant in causing the accident. The court noted that Mitsubishi proved at trial there had never been another reported instance of a clockspring malfunctioning because of a misalignment at the factory. Further, plaintiffs’ own experts could not verify with direct evidence the fact that the cause of the malfunction was a misalignment of the component by Mitsubishi, rather than in subsequent repairs or accidents, noting that the vehicle had been in a rental fleet for 20,000 miles. The court also noted that plaintiffs’ experts destroyed any Adirect evidence, by dismantling the steering wheel and airbag system before any notice was provided to Mitsubishi. In doing so, plaintiffs’ experts failed to adequately document the condition of the components. Accordingly, the Court ruled that plaintiffs should not be allowed to gain the benefit of circumstantial evidence, when they defeated the only possible direct evidence available – the alignment of the clockspring.