Judge reduces jury award in seatbelt case

Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau Oct. 9, 2007, 10:11am

MARSHALL � After losing their daughter in an auto accident, an East Texas jury awarded the Frazier family $24 million in a trial against the car's seatbelt manufacturer. However a federal judge has now reduced those damages by almost 40 percent.

U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis granted a remittitur for $9.75 million dollars for seatbelt designer and manufacturer Honeywell International, previously known as Allied-Signal Inc., on Oct. 3. Remittitur is a procedural process by which a court can reduce a jury verdict if it believes the verdict was excessive.

The request for remittitur had come from Honeywell, along with a motion for new trial.

The Frazier family sued Honeywell after their youngest daughter was killed when she was ejected from a Chevrolet Tahoe. The family was taking their youngest daughter, Lauren, to start college at Baylor University in Waco. With the family car already packed, the group decided to celebrate and took a friend's Tahoe to get ice cream.

On their way home, an oncoming car driven by Natalie White turned and hit the Tahoe. The Tahoe rolled and in the process Lauren was ejected and died from her injuries. Lauren's friend and parents suffered only minor or non-life threatening injuries.

The family believes the "seatbelt's defective design permitted it to spontaneously unlatch during the dynamics of the accident, allowing Lauren to be ejected from the Tahoe and killed."

Honeywell maintains that the seatbelt design was not defective, and that Lauren was not wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident.

A four-day trial was held in February 2006 in the Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas.

After deliberating during the trial, the jury decided Lauren was wearing a seatbelt and that the seatbelt was defective. The jury found that Natalie White "proximately caused Lauren's injuries, but that Honeywell was 95 percent responsible for her fatal injuries, and GM, the Tahoe's manufacturer, 5 percent responsible."

The jury awarded Lauren's parents a total of $24 million dollars in damages.

After the trial Honeywell filed a motion for judgment not withstanding the verdict, or in the alternative for a new trial, and remitter.

Within the motion for judgment, Honeywell argued the plaintiff did not prove the seatbelt was defective, the magnitude of risk, or that other seatbelt designs were safer. Judge Davis denied the motion.

Arguing for a new trial, the seatbelt manufacturer claims, among other things, that the court did not have "proper predicate" in admitting crash and sled test videos and that jury instructions regarding proportional responsibility were erroneous. Honeywell also argued that evidence regarding Natalie White's intoxication should have been admitted and that the Frazier's attorney should not have told the jury "go kick Honeywell's butt." Judge Davis denied the new trial request.

However, after a hearing on the matter, Judge Davis did issue the order and opinion granting remittitur. For similar case analysis, the Judge reviewed Volger vs. Blackmore, Souza vs. Cooper, and Logan vs. City of Houston. Using these three cases, Judge Davis found the jury award of $24 million excessive and offered the Fraziers a $9.75 million total award in lieu of a new trial.

In his opinion, Judge Davis states that the testimony from Lauren's father "was as compelling and moving as any this judge has heard in over 30 years, as a civil trial attorney and judge." The judge said that "retrying the case � even on damages alone � would only serve to cause this family more pain and anguish which this court does not want to see them endure."

The Fraziers have 30 days to accept the award reduction. If they reject the offer, there will be a new trial on damages.

Case No.: 2:05cv00548

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