Flax v. DaimlerChrysler seat back appeal

by Ted Frank on June 13, 2008

A very belated update to our earlier posts of 2004 and 2005. As we stated in November 2004:

In 2001, Louis Stockell, driving his pickup at 70 mph, twice the speed limit, rear-ended a Chrysler minivan. Physics being what they are, the front passenger seat in the van collapsed backwards and the passenger’s head struck and fatally injured 8-month old Joshua Flax. The rest of the family walked away from the horrific accident. Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Butler argued that Chrysler, which already designed its seats above federal standards, should be punished for not making the seats stronger — never mind that a stronger and stiffer seat would result in more injuries from other kinds of crashes because it wouldn’t absorb any energy from the crash. (Rear-end collisions are responsible for only 3% of auto fatalities.) Apparently car companies are expected to anticipate which type of crash a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly. The $105M verdict includes $98M in punitives.

We had more details of trial shenanigans in December 2004 and noted the reduction of the punitives by the trial court to a still unreasonable $20 million in June 2005. And now the rest of the story:

We were incomplete in the accident description. Flax’s grandfather, driving the minivan, noticed Stockell coming up fast behind him–and moved into the left lane of oncoming traffic, which was unfortunately where Stockell also had moved when he slammed into the rear of the minivan. That’s still mostly or entirely Stockell’s fault for going so fast in a residential neighborhood, but, remember: slow-moving traffic, always go to the right.

The remaining $27+ million of the decision was appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. As Beck and Herrmann note, the evidentiary rulings are appalling–anecdotal evidence of other accidents was introduced, real-world empirical statistical evidence showing the vehicle was safe was excluded, the fact that the expert had been caught lying about his testing did not merit a new trial, the evidence of a “safer alternative” is non-existent but held sufficient–resulting in an affirmance of the liability verdict. But, at least, the court reversed the punitive damages on the grounds that regulatory compliance showed good-faith efforts towards safety, citing Tennessee Code Ann. §29-28-104. The court also threw out an emotional distress claim on grounds of lack of evidence, though the affirmed $3.7 million noneconomic damages award should be some solace for that loss. Flax v. DaimlerChrysler, No. M2005-01768-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 3813655 (Tenn. App. Dec. 27, 2006); Jenner & Block report. There is no record of further litigation. If I read McIntyre v. Balentine, 833 S.W.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992), correctly, Tennessee does not have joint and several liability, so, per the jury verdict, Chrysler is only 50% liable for the $5 million in economic and non-economic damages, with reckless driver Louis Stockell on the hook for the other $2.5 million. The decision received no mainstream press coverage.

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Breaking: Tennessee Supreme Court reinstates punitive damages in Flax v. DaimlerChrysler
07.24.08 at 3:22 pm


1 Deoxy 06.13.08 at 11:48 am

Now it’s more of the normal “just a travesty of justice” rather than the “extreme travesty of justice” that it was before, which is at least a bit of improvement.

2 AMcA 06.13.08 at 3:49 pm

I bet the defense fees exceeded the final judgment amount by a WIDE margin.

3 William Nuesslein 06.15.08 at 8:13 am

The minivan was hit from behind and there was a substantial force pushing material forward. What would have accelerated the front passenger’s head backwards? (Physics being what they are.) Isn’t it much more reasonable that the crash threw the child’s head at the passenger? In that case, the strength of the front seat is immaterial.

That only one died or was even hurt badly in this event is a tribute to the engineering of the minivan. The judge and jury in this case should be whipped in public!

4 Ted Frank 06.15.08 at 9:08 am

WN: vehicle moves forward from impact; seat attached to vehicle moves forward against the weight of passenger who remains in same place due to inertia; this places rearward force on seat. If passenger is heavy enough or force of impact is high enough, seat will collapse backward.

5 William Nuesslein 06.15.08 at 7:59 pm


Most of the weight of the passenger would be accelerated forward by the bottom of the seat. There is a pivot at the seat belt and a torque that is applied to the back of the seat. Much of the energy of this torque would be dissipated in breaking the back of the seat. In my opinion there would not be a cannonball effect on the passenger’s head as there would be on the child’s head if the child were not securely harnessed. If the child was thrown forward, then he might have been killed by hitting the back of the front seat or any hard object as well as hitting the head of the passenger. To me the failure of the front seat is a red haring. Maybe somebody who works with crash dummy experiments can help us out.

My car was hit in the side in the 1960’2 and my son, who was in the back seat area, got a pretty good rap on his head from the door frame. I quickly installed seat belts myself.

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