Breaking: Tennessee Supreme Court reinstates punitive damages in Flax v. DaimlerChrysler

by Ted Frank on July 24, 2008

Perhaps we spoke too soon when we commended the Tennessee appellate court for getting it partially right. 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. In December 2006, the intermediate appellate court threw out the punitive damages and the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, leaving a $5 million compensatory damages verdict to be split between Chrysler and the driver responsible for the accident. An injustice, but at least a smaller injustice.

However, today, a 3-2 vote of the Tennessee Supreme Court made it a larger injustice again, reinstating $13,367,345 of punitive damages over a good-faith dispute over appropriate seatback design, giving no credit to evidence that the design in the Caravan was safer than the plaintiffs’ proposed design, and effectively disregarding Tennessee statutory law that compliance with federal standards creates a presumption against punitive damages. The Court did not mention Exxon Shipping‘s suggestion that punitive damages greater than a 1:1 ratio were possibly constitutionally inappropriate where compensatory damages were substantial and the defendant’s actions were not intentional or done for profit. The Court unanimously affirmed the elimination of the NIED claim; one justice would have thrown out the compensatory damages, as well, because of the volume of inadmissible and improperly prejudicial evidence admitted. (Flax v. Daimler Chrysler (Tenn. Jul. 24, 2008); id. (Wade, J., concurring); id. (Clark, J., partially dissenting); id. (Koch, J., partially dissenting); E. Thomas Wood, “High court upholds $18.4M damage award in DaimlerChrysler case”, Nashville Post, Jul. 24; Kristin M. Hall, AP/Chicago Tribune, Jul. 24). The majority decision relied heavily on the expert testimony of Paul Sheridan, an MBA non-engineer and professional anti-Chrysler witness whom a federal court called “wholly unqualified” to testify on seat back design.

{ 1 trackback }

Flax v. Chrysler, one more thought
07.28.08 at 7:48 am

{ 6 comments }

1 William Nuesslein 07.25.08 at 8:43 am

It is just one case and the amounts involved are not that great in terms of the size of an automobile company. But the significance of the decision extends beyond the case itself. How can the actors in a fundamental institution, judges, be so STUPID, so hideously STUPID.

The passenger’s head would had gone forward in the accident. It had to be that the child was not secured, and it was the child’s head, not the passenger’s head, that was the cannonball.

Would a Daubert claim be possible?

2 OBQuiet 07.26.08 at 1:54 pm

William,

I may have the situation wrong but I think you have the wrong image of the accident.

Car rear ended so that is driven forward by the impact. Child in seat is driven forward in seat along with entire car. Passenger in seat would have experienced that same except that the seat failed. Her body remained more stationary relative to the outside plane of reference but flew backwards relative to the car’s accelerating plane.

This still doesn’t make it the manufacturer’s fault. Had the rear seat been empty and the passenger seat reinforced, the passanger might well be suing over injuries caused by having the seat driven into her and snapping her neck.

these stories keep making me think of the Laryy Niven Short Story, “Safe at any speed”
http://variety-sf.blogspot.com/2007/12/larry-niven-safe-at-any-speed-short.html

3 William Nuesslein 07.27.08 at 8:12 am

QBQiet,

Let’s first look at the passenger. The acceleration from the crash would have been transmitted to the passenger through the seat. The bottom of the seat would have done most of the work in accelerating the passenger. There was a pivot around the seatbelt and there would have bee a torque on the back of the seat. Some of this energy would have been absorbed by the seat breaking.

Now from the child. Had the child been secured to the rear seat, then the forces on the child would have been synchronized with the forces on the passenger and the relative positions, separation, would have been maintained. If the child was not secured, then the initial acceleration from the crash would not have been mitigated by the deceleration of the total mass of the vehicles. The child’s head would be a cannonball. In fact one great argument for securing children in automobiles, after protecting them, is protecting you from the cannonball effect.

4 Ted Frank 07.27.08 at 9:02 am

The acceleration from the crash would have been transmitted to the passenger through the seat.

Through the back of the seat. Which, if it isn’t strong enough, and if the collision is hard enough, and the passenger heavy enough, will yield from the resulting several-thousand-foot-pound force.

Bill, the physics are pretty clear: the child in the rear seat can be secured in such a situation, the front-seat passenger will rotate backwards relative to the car, and the effect of seat failure can be devastating: it’s a high-speed head-butt, and an adult’s head is harder than a child’s. There is a lot that is wrong with the Flax case (for one thing, if the passenger was heavy enough, no vehicle seat would have survived such a high-speed collision, and the only reason we’re talking about the seat-back is because they were in a minivan–if Flax was in a smaller car, he’d be just as dead for different reasons; for another, there are very good safety reasons to have a seat-back yield) but no one contests the theory of how Flax was hurt.

5 William Nuesslein 07.27.08 at 10:05 am

Ted,

It seems to me that you see the human body to be composed of independent sections. The bottom half of the passenger would by thrown forward by the bottom part of the seat and the top part by the back of the seat. You ignore the fact that the passenger has a backbone and other skeletal members. The same is true of the child.

You are absolutely right when you say the the collisions of the heads would be a terrific head-butt. The child’s head might actually be stronger because of it’s shorter radius of curvature. That is how a bullet penetrates a skull. No one could contest that it was the collisions of the heads that killed the child. My claim is that the collapse of the back of the passenger’s seat is like an optical illusion. We need some calculations from the crash dummy guys to settle the matter.

The main problem with the case is the post-hoc engineering by amateurs. None of the judges would submit to dental work by a jury.

6 Ted Frank 07.27.08 at 10:16 am

Bill, in this accident, all three seat-backs occupied by adults collapsed into a reclining position. It’s a known phenomenon entirely consistent with Newtonian physics.

Do the thought experiment where the front vehicle is a bus and a passenger is standing at the front of the aisle facing forward and wearing roller skates; do another thought experiment where everything is the same and the back of the minivan front seat is made out of a thin web of tissue paper; then re-evaluate your analysis.

But we agree that the post-hoc engineering by the jury and the courts makes no sense.

Comments on this entry are closed.