$18 million “sudden acceleration” verdict in South Carolina

by Ted Frank on August 7, 2006

It’s been nearly two decades since NHTSA refuted the concept of sudden acceleration, yet state courts are still permitting junk science experts to put forward irreproducable theories of electromagnetic interference taking over cruise control. Seventeen-year-old Sonya Thomas claims EMI caused her automobile to take off, causing her to lose control and kill a passenger and paralyze herself. Of course, rather than turn the cruise control off or hit the brakes, Thomas unbuckled her seatbelt and reached under the seat to unstick a gas pedal, which is more consistent with her jamming the gas pedal under an upside-down floormat than anything else. Never mind: though belted passengers were uninjured in the 70-80 mph crash, the South Carolina state jury awarded $18 million to the plaintiffs, and the American automobile industry died a little bit more. (Paul Alongi and Jess Davis, “Cruise control led to crash, jury says”, Greenville News, Aug. 7; Julie Howle, “Jury begins deliberations in crash trial”, Greenville News, Aug. 6; Julie Howle, “Witness disputes seat-belt usage in crash”, Greenville News, Aug. 5; Julie Howle, “Jurors in lawsuit see hard evidence in 1999 rollover”, Greenville News, Jul. 25; “Jury Hears Claims Of Ford Explorer Problems”, WYFF4, Jul. 20).

(March 2010 update: Reversed.)

{ 8 comments }

1 nevins 08.07.06 at 4:08 pm

I’m always amazed at these. How could any other explanation other than driver error ever be established to the preponderance of the evidence. Any juror even remotely honest with themself would recognize that they personally have made many error or driving for which the vehicle bore no responsibility, yet they continue to be fooled into believing the driver/plaintiff that it was only the vehicle at fault.

2 Chris Innes 08.07.06 at 5:48 pm

Looking at the evidence, it seems that neither the Thomas nor her passenger were wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash. Yet she claims they were, and they came undone thanks to “inertial unlatching”. This apparently goes beyond bad science and into the realm of outright dishonesty.

3 toby 08.07.06 at 9:17 pm

They ought to put a switch on every vehicle that could shut off the engine immediatly any time the driver felt that the car was accelerating out of control; the right side of the steering column would be a great place, and it would double as a spot to hang the house key too….

4 Jim Collins 08.08.06 at 10:24 am

Toby

Your switch might seem like a good idea, but why give them something else to blame when they screw up? I design industrial machinery for a living and I have found out as soon as you make something idiot proof they go and make a better idiot. This is never going to stop until people are made to take responsibility for their own actions. Another thing that is needed is an assumption of risk. If you are running with a knife why should it be the knif manufacturer’s fault if you fall and stab yourself with it?

We need to stop selling tickets to the “liability lottery”.

5 MF 08.08.06 at 2:31 pm

This is never going to stop until people are made to take responsibility for their own actions.

Truer words have never been written.

6 toby 08.08.06 at 3:17 pm

Ummm.. maybe the joke was lost through the flat medium of the typed word. I was referring of course to the ignition switch which is ubiquitously present as a quick and reliable means of stopping a run-away engine. Just don’t turn the key so far that it locks the stearing column!

7 William Nuesslein 08.09.06 at 6:31 am

What happened to Daubert?

8 Jim Collins 08.09.06 at 12:07 pm

Ted e-mailed me and pointed out that Toby meant the ignition switch. I decided not to change my reply for the very reason that Toby pointed out. If someone turns off the engine when the vehicle supposedly accelerates on its own and they lock up the steering, do you think that they won’t sue anyway? I can hear them now. “I followed the manufacturer’s advice when my car took off. I turned off the ignition switch and then found out I couldn’t steer. Somebody has to pay for this!”

We just had a customer threaten to sue us because one of their employees almost lost a couple of fingers on one of our machines. Of course they didn’t want to mention that they had removed four guards and had taped down the lockout switches. If it wasn’t for one of our service guys taking pictures with his camera phone we would probably be out of business.

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