$43 Million Jury Verdict Obtained in Trial Over Defective Car Seat

A two-week jury trial in Vermont recently concluded with a $43.1 million verdict on behalf of Langdon & Emison's client, after her car seat collapsed in a 2007 accident, rendering her a quadraplegic. Arguably no firm in the United States has amassed the track record that Langdon & Emison has in defective auto seat cases. This amount is believed to be the largest in the history of that state's courts.

Leading the legal team in this matter were attorneys James Gilbert of Colorado, and Langdon & Emison’s Bob Langdon and Adam Graves. Most Americans are unaware that a feature commonly used in the front seats of their cars can have catastrophic safety consequences. This feature is the reclining mechanism for the seat backs found in most automobiles in America for both the driver and passenger seat positions. In this case, the manufacturer held responsible by the jury for the client's injuries was Johnson Controls Inc. of Milwaukee.

The lawsuit arose from an Aug. 4, 2007, accident on Vermont Route 15 in Essex, when the firm's client's car, a 2000 Dodge Neon, was struck from behind by a vehicle. According to the police accident report, the driver fell asleep just before striking the car as the client was waiting at a red light to turn into a grocery store parking lot. The collision occurred at only 40 mph at the point of impact, but created severe spinal cord injuries. The client was seat belted, but the car seat back collapsed immediately.

"If a seat back collapses rearward in a rear impact crash there is the potential to injure the occupant, and sadly that is what happened in this case," said Bob, who has been inducted as a Fellow in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.  What we think is horrible about this case is that federal standards have not changed for this part of the automobile industry, since the 1970s. With this common auto defect, neither the seat belt nor the airbag can prevent injury when even a minor accident occurs.

Bob and Adam were able to show at trial that by the defense's own estimation, 350-570 lives per year would be saved if this particular defect was modified. This figure does not include those who are quad- or paraplegics as a result of these accidents. Additionally, many children each year are injured in collisions when the passenger hits the child occupying the back seat upon impact.

As the legal team showed at trial, this seat model was designed with a single-sided recliner mechanism; the device that allows you to position your seat back forward and rearward for comfort. Because the recliner mechanism was only installed on a one side of the seat, it permitted the seat to torque and rotate even in low-impact collisions. The torquing of the seat caused the recliner mechanism to bend outward, causing the recliner mechanism to fail and permitting the seat back to collapse backward into the rear seat. The company's own testing showed the JCI-seat failed at only 6,215 inch-pounds of force; or about 299 pounds.

A solution was simple and readily available to Johnson Controls: A dual-sided recliner mechanism, which would distribute the force equally across the seat back and prevent the kind of torquing of the seat at low force thresholds that caused the JCI design to fail. In fact, Johnson Controls filed a patent for a dual-sided mechanism to prevent this exact failure mode in 1998. Together the two Langdon & Emison attorneys have litigated several matters involving seats that are defective.

Bob has served numerous times as lead counsel in some of the nation’s more significant personal injury trials. He has been recognized with some of the United States’ highest honors for attorneys, and devotes 100% of his practice to representing people in personal injury cases. For more than thirty years he has focused his practice on cases where defective vehicles or products have injured or killed the plaintiffs he represented, obtaining multi-million dollar verdicts for seriously injured clients across the country.

Adam is an experienced litigator in personal injury litigation, having represented clients throughout the U.S. in State and Federal Court. As a partner at his prior firm, he handled complex medical malpractice lawsuits and product liability claims, taking multiple cases to verdict in favor of his clients. Adam has been recognized by the Order of the Barristers, Super Lawyers, and other legal resources as a standout trial attorney, and has been the recipient of the Roscoe Anderson Award for Excellence in Advocacy.