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Tennessee: Chrysler Liable for $13M in Punitives

The Associated Press (via Law.com) has a thorough report on a high-punitives case decided last Thursday in which divided state supreme court has upheld the trial court award of $13 million in punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler Corp. (the parent company of Chrysler at the time 8-month-old Joshua Flax was killed in 2001).

Joshua was riding in the backseat of a 1998 Dodge Caravan in Nashville when the vehicle was rear-ended by one Louis Stockell., The front passenger seat of the minivan collapsed from the force of the collision and the passenger struck Joshua, fracturing his skull.

In a 3-2 decision filed Thursday, the court said the automaker acted recklessly in maintaining the design of the van's seats, and that the award of punitives (in addition to $5 million in compensatory damages to the parents) was not excessive. The court did reverse the trial court's award to Joshua's mother of over $6 million more in punitives emotional distress, as duplicative and therefore unconstitutional under Supreme Court guidelines. [The jury had awarded Joshua's parents $98 million in punitives, but the trial judge had reduced this amount to $19 million, $13 million of which were upheld here.]

In the original trial, the family tried to prove the automaker knew the minivan seats were defective and unreasonably dangerous, because they yielded in rear-end collisions, but failed to fix the problem or warn consumers and continued to market the vehicles as safe. Chrysler argued the seats yielded to protect the passenger -- firmer attachments would result in more passenger deaths. They also argued that their seats were similar to ones used by other car manufacturers, and exceeded federal regulations. We shall now see if pre-emption (interesting) and punitives (must manufacturers warn of design tradeoffs?) issues are brought before the US Supreme Court on this one.

Needless to say, the negligent driver Stockwell was also held liable (though not for punitives -- and of course he will not pay beyond his insurance limits). He was only driving at twice the posted speed when he rammed the Flax's van, after all.

Ted Frank has posted eloquently about earlier iterations of this sad case. See here, here, here, here and here.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.