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Upholding a verdict against Hyundai Motor Co. in the air bag deployment death of an unbelted 5-year-old boy, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held on Dec. 5 that the trial court did not err when it limited in-trial references to the boy being unbelted and barred evidence that the boy’s father-the driver of the car-had twice been cited for violating New Hampshire’s mandatory seat belt for minors law. Connelly v. Hyundai Motor Co., No. 02-2232. On the evening of Sept. 13, 1996, Eduardo Cabrera was riding in the front passenger seat of a 1995 Hyundai Sonata driven by his father, Jose Cabrera. The Cabreras’ vehicle collided with another car and then struck a light pole. The Sonata’s air bag deployed, striking Eduardo’s chin with such force that it severed his spinal cord from his brain, killing him. Filing suit against Hyundai in the Concord, N.H., federal courthouse, Cabrera’s estate alleged that the Sonata’s air bag was designed to deploy more forcefully than necessary, causing the boy’s death. A jury found that Hyundai was not strictly liable, but found that it was negligent in the sale of the air bag. It awarded the boy’s estate $300,707 in damages. Hyundai appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in charging the jury on both strict liability and negligence, resulting in an inconsistent verdict. Hyundai also argued that the trial court erred by refusing to allow introduction of the seat belt evidence, including Jose Cabrera’s unbelted-minor citations. While not condoning the dual jury charges, the 1st Circuit held that there was no error and affirmed the verdict. “The most that can be said is that submission of both claims is frowned upon,” the court said. Additionally, noting the different standards for strict liability and negligence claims, the circuit court held that there was nothing inconsistent in the jury’s verdict. Addressing Hyundai’s seat belt arguments, the appeals court held that the lower court was correct in allowing the jury to consider the boy’s nonuse of the seat belt in determining causation and also in its instruction to the jury that the nonuse was irrelevant in determining Hyundai’s negligence. The circuit court noted that New Hampshire’s seat belt law prohibits the introduction of seat belt nonuse as proof of contributory negligence in civil suits. Finally, the 1st Circuit held that there was no error in excluding Jose Cabrera’s previous unbelted-minor citations because they were inadmissible prior acts. It noted that the court had afforded Hyundai the less prejudicial option of being able to impeach Cabrera with deposition testimony in which he recounted that a police officer had told him that his son had to wear a seat belt when he was driving.

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