Jury awards $34.4M in car seat trial
Robin Y. Richardson
June 18, 2016 at 4 a.m.
World-renowned car seat manufacturer, Dorel Juvenile Inc., will have to pay an East Texas family $34.4 million in damages for the life-altering injuries that an East Texas child sustained while in the company's Safety 1st Summit seat during a May 2013 car crash, a federal jury in Marshall determined Friday.
"I think the jury got it right," Jeff Embry, attorney for the child's parents told the News Messenger following the verdict Friday. "(You) have a company that forgot their primary purpose - (which is) to protect kids."
The personal injury trial began here Monday in U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap's courtroom. In the case, Nicole Hinson, of Longview, and her ex-husband, Cameron Hinson, of Hallsville sued the car seat manufacturer for failing to adequately warn consumers and customers of the risks posed to children younger than age 2, positioned in a forward facing car seat as opposed to a rear-facing car seat.
The jury of four men and four women agreed, on Friday, that due to the company's negligence, Dorel's forward-facing seat caused the young child's severe spinal cord injury, which left him partially paralyzed. They also determined that the company's negligence was responsible for his brain injury.
Two verdicts were rendered in the case. The first, a $24.4 million verdict, which came after three hours of deliberation, concerned fair and reasonable compensation for the child's injuries. Past and future damages considered were for mental anguish, disfigurement, loss of earning capacity, physical impairment, and medical expenses.
Finding that the defendant committed gross negligence, the jury then had to decide on whether any exemplary or punitive damages should be awarded. After about five minutes of deliberating on that matter, the jury unanimously agreed that an additional $10 million in exemplary damages should be awarded to the victim for Dorel's gross negligence. In the first verdict, the jury also determined that Dorel was 80 percent responsible for the injuries; and the driver who hit the Hinsons, Stacey Tilley, was 20 percent responsible. Jurors didn't find any fault with Wal-Mart Stores, who reportedly installed Tilley's two new tires wrong. They also didn't find any fault with the child's mother, who secured him in the car seat.
Exemplary damages arguments
During the second phase of the trial, regarding exemplary damages to be awarded, Embry explained that the exemplary damages is intended to deter the defendant and others in the industry from committing such conduct again. He reminded jurors that Dorel had sold two million of the Safety 1st brand car seats, which equated to $200 million in revenue since 2001. He said making Dorel pay 20 percent of that would be enough to hold them accountable for their actions.
"You have a chance, today, to discourage that conduct to get them to do what's right… that if you don't warn somebody, you (have to pay)," Embry said.
He said the verdict could make a real difference when it comes to the safety of children, making all manufacturers in the industry responsible for adequately warning customers.
"You, eight people, are the only ones in the (world), from the White House - anywhere - who have that power," Embry told the jury.
"You have the power to show (that) kids' safety should be number one," he said.
"You cannot call yourself 'Safety 1st' if that's not what you meant to do," Embry said of Dorel's brand name.
In his closing arguments regarding exemplary damages, Dorel's attorney, Jonathan Judge, asked jurors to not make Dorel employees pay any more than required in the first verdict.
"(A total of) 1,200 employees will get quite a message already," Judge, for Dorel, said. "They thought they were doing the best they can. They haven't heard anything but people calling thanking them (for building a safe product).
"They've already been hit with a penalty of $20 million. The plaintiff wants you to award $20 more (million)," Judge continued. "I understand you feel Dorel came up short and did not do what they should've, but these 1,200 employees do not need a further reminder. Your message has been heard."
Embry, for the plaintiff, contended that because of the defendant, there's a little boy who has to have catheters removed from him every three hours for the rest of his life.
"The nature of the wrong is extreme," Embry said.
"They knew what they were doing," Embry said of Dorel. "Render a verdict that gets their attention, in this phase of the trial, that you cannot do this anymore."
In the initial closing arguments Friday, Embry argued that internal documents from the company proves that Dorel knew that forward-facing seats were not safe for children younger than age 2, per the American Academy of Pediatrics' instruction.
"Dorel knew that as early as 2009 that the lead health care agency said (for) toddlers under age 2, it's dangerous to have them in a forward-facing seat," Embry said. "We know it was true that the defendant believed it."
He said the AAP warned that in the event of an accident, forward-facing seats for a child that age may cause spinal cord danger, paralysis, brain injuries and even death – most of which occurred in this case.
"There is no way that Ms. Hinson could know about these dangerous (issues) - no way," Embry said.
He further noted that in April 2010, two years before the Hinsons' son was even born, Dorel's executives had a meeting about the child restraint system, noting that children are five times safer if they are rear-facing, up to age 2.
"These are the gurus," Embry said. "They knew it in 2009 when AAP told them and in 2010 when they talked about it in their own executive meetings."
He said Dorel decided to choose the wrong path by not updating the warning on the Safety 1st Summit seat. Embry further argued that the car seat manufacturer brought in Jeya Padmanaban, a product safety expert and statistician, to say that forward facing seats are significantly safer than rear-facing for 1 year olds, which contrasts with what Dorel's own website tells parents.
"All the doctors, researchers and pediatricians say children face more danger forward-facing," Embry said. "Now, even Dorel says that," Padmanaban said, 'No, they're five times safer forward facing," Embry said, recalling her testimony. "That makes no sense."
"They wouldn't still have it on their website if they still believed that," Embry said.
It's because "they don't believe that. They just want you to believe that," Embry told jurors.
Embry said the question in this case is if Dorel knew the danger.
"Absolutely (they did)," Embry contended. "Did they provide an adequate warning? Not at all. This is the biggest company in the (industry) that makes car seats."
"You have to warn of the danger where it's going to reasonably be seen by the ordinary user," he said, noting that means put it on the placard in the store or on the box, if need be. "They didn't do any of those things."
"The answer in this case is very clear - they knew and they didn't tell parents," he said.
In his closing, Judge, Dorel's attorney, said there's not a single person in the case who doesn't feel terrible for the Hinson family.
"But, that doesn't mean Dorel did anything wrong," he said.
"There's nothing that could've saved him - forward or backward facing if his shoulder strap wasn't on," he said, arguing that bruising on the child's body suggested that the child didn't have his shoulder straps on.
Judge argued that the Summit brand is a safe, well performing seat with great reviews from parents of children involved in accidents.
"It meets standards overwhelmingly," he said, noting the product has never been recalled. "We have the perfect safety record for this seat. No other child has ever suffered any injury of any kind in this seat."
"It's the only forward facing seat that kids have been brought up in for generations," Judge said.
The defense attorney further contended that the plaintiff didn't prove that a different warning would've made any difference.
"Remember Ms. Hinson never used the tether strap (in her husband's truck) even though she was specifically warned to do that," Judge said. "The only think you learned is she kept using this Summit seat (brand) for her paralyzed son, up until he was (age) two and then a few years later she filed a lawsuit saying it was defective and then still used it up until this past Christmas. That's incredible."
The defense attorney further noted that he hasn't seen a single box from any manufacturer that boasts an age requirement. He said instructions and manuals include height and weight requirements, which were all met or exceeded by the Hinsons' son.
"He is the size of a typical three-year-old," Judge argued.
"The reason he suffered injuries is not because the way the Summit is designed or the label, it's because of the way it's been used," the defense attorney said, insinuating that he wasn't wearing his shoulder straps.
Embry, for the plaintiff, argued that it was proved through the child's mother's testimony that the child was wearing shoulder straps.
"A young man suffered a paralyzing injury and a brain injury because he's a little toddler and his little body couldn't (tolerate) the force (in a forward facing seat)," Embry said.
He said the risk of children that age in a forward facing seat is real.
"They knew it was real," he said of Dorel. "They believed it was real and they still do - everywhere but in this courtroom."