By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
In a product liability and wrongful death action against the automaker, a Los Angeles, California jury awarded nearly $21.5 million to the survivors of a woman and her two little girls who died after their minivan was struck by a man whose Nissan-manufactured sport-utility vehicle failed to stop due to faulty brake system software. Awarding another $3.5 million to the SUV’s driver as well, the jury found that the design of the vehicle’s braking system was a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiffs, Nissan was negligent in failing to recall the vehicle, and the automaker’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing all of the plaintiffs’ alleged harm (Cruz v. Nissan North America, Inc., July 21, 2017, Hammock, R.).
While driving his 2004 Infiniti QX56 in August 2012 and despite having applied the brakes in an attempt to bring the SUV to a complete stop, an elderly individual lost control of his vehicle and collided with another vehicle in an intersection, killing the other vehicle’s three occupants: a woman and two of her three young daughters. The father of the two deceased girls and the deceased mother’s survivors filed suit against the SUV owner, the vehicle’s manufacturer, Nissan North America, Inc., and one of the automaker’s parts manufacturers. Criminal charges against the SUV owner eventually were dropped after prosecutors became aware of a settlement reached by Nissan in a class-action suit involving the allegedly faulty braking systems in 2004-2008 QX56s, and he subsequently joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff against the automaker.
The plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the QX56’s Delta Stroke Sensor (DSS)—an electric component that connects to and interfaces with the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) within the sealed Brake Booster Assembly, collects information about the vehicle’s primary mechanical braking system, and provides input/information to the ECU—was defective. The failure of the defective DSS disables the braking ability of vehicles in which it was installed to the point where drivers are, without warning and suddenly, unable to stop their vehicle within a reasonably safe time and distance, or at all, the complaint maintained, arguing that the defect led to the deactivation of the primary mechanical braking system in the at-issue QX56.
Moreover, Nissan and the DSS’s manufacturer knew of the above-mentioned braking defect as early as 2003 but failed to take any action to notify owners/consumers of the problem, the complaint asserted. Instead, they continued to manufacture, market, sell, and distribute the defective vehicles. Despite their wealth of knowledge relating to the QX56’s defective braking system and its clear safety implications, the automaker and parts maker continued to suppress and conceal that knowledge and failed to disclose that the subject vehicles’ braking system was defective and dangerous. The companies also fraudulently concealed the defect as well as its manifest safety implications through deception, the complaint contended.
Among the causes of action asserted against Nissan and its parts maker were claims for strict products liability/wrongful death (manufacturing defect, design defect, and failure to warn) and negligence. Demanding a jury trial, the complaint sought wrongful death/survival damages, punitive and exemplary damages, prejudgment interest, and costs.
The verdict. After a four-week trial, the jury determined that: (1) the design of the 2004 Infiniti QX56’s braking system was a substantial factor in causing harm to owners of those vehicles; (2) the benefits of the design of the 2004 Infiniti QX56’s braking system did not outweigh the risks of the design; (3) Nissan was negligent in failing to recall the 2004 Infiniti QX56; and (4) Nissan’s negligence in failing to recall the 2004 Infiniti QX56 was a substantial factor in causing harm to vehicle owners. The jury also found that the SUV owner was negligent, but that his negligence was not a substantial factor in causing harm to the decedents’ survivors. Nissan was 100-percent liable for the plaintiffs’ harm, the jury concluded.
As for damages, the jury awarded $14 million to the father of the two deceased little girls, $7.4 million in economic and non-economic damages to the surviving daughter, and $3.5 million to the QX56’s owner.
The case is Nos. BC493949, BC529912, and BC577815.
Attorneys: Paul R. Kiesel (Kiesel Law LLP), Brett Turnbull (Cory Watson Attorneys) and Kurt Wolden (Carter Wolden Curtis LLP) for Hilario Cruz, et al. (Bowman Brooke LLP) for Nissan North America, Inc.
Companies: Nissan North America, Inc.
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