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CASE TYPE: Personal injury CASE: Manes v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., No. 2-537-00 (Knox Co., Tenn., Cir. Ct.) PLAINTIFF’S ATTORNEYS: Sidney W. Gilreath and Diane Lashmit of Knoxville, Tenn.’s Gilreath & Associates DEFENSE ATTORNEYS: Lawrence A. Sutter, Alan Parker and Joy Burns of Cleveland’s Reminger & Reminger, for DaimlerChrysler Corp.; and Paul Dunn of Knoxville, Tenn.’s Dunn, MacDonald & Coleman, for Renee Johnson JURY VERDICTS: $44 million, defense win for Chrysler For the most part, when a plaintiffs’ attorney wins a $44 million verdict, it’s cause for celebration. But there was no joy for lead attorney Sidney Gilreath last September when a Knoxville, Tenn., jury awarded his client all that money. At the same time, the jury had cleared the only defendant capable of paying any judgment. And Gilreath’s decision to go forward with the trial, despite an interruption by the events of Sept. 11, may have been a contributing factor. The lawsuit revolved around the injuries to Ashley Nicole Manes, then 4 years old, in a Nov. 10, 1999, accident. Ashley was a passenger in a Dodge Caravan driven by her mother when the minivan was hit head-on by a Ford Escort whose driver crossed the center lane. Her mother suffered minor injuries but Ashley was rendered a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic in the accident. The driver of the Escort, Renee Johnson, was killed. Ashley’s father, on her behalf, filed a products liability action against DaimlerChrysler, maker of the Caravan, charging that the seat belt system was defectively designed in that it allowed Ashley to submarine under the shoulder portion of the belt. “The child was too big for a car seat,” said Gilreath, “so her mother put her in middle seat in the second row in a regular seat belt.” During the collision, Ashley went under the shoulder harness, he said. “She caught her neck on the shoulder belt and broke her neck.” The plaintiff also sued the Johnson estate. Chrysler contended that there was no defect in the belt. “She was not wearing the seat belt properly,” said defense counsel Lawrence A. Sutter. The shoulder portion of the belt had been placed behind the child before the accident, he said. But the contentions were overshadowed by events outside the courtroom, Gilreath said. In the middle of the plaintiff’s case, he reported, “a clerk comes in the courtroom and tells us about an airline crash and the terrorists. The judge declares a recess.” Everyone went to the clerk’s office where the entire group watched the World Trade Center burn. One of the jurors, who knew someone who worked at the World Trade Center, was particularly upset, he recalled. The judge stopped the trial for two days, then called the attorneys back. “He wanted us to tell him if we wanted to go on,” Gilreath said. “I had talked to a jury consultant, who said people were being kinder to each other.” This meant, he believed, that the jurors would be sympathetic to his client. “So it was OK to go on,” he said. “But in retrospect, I don’t think it was.” The jurors, he felt, might have been distracted. Or they might have been swayed by a point Sutter made in closing. Sutter acknowledged the suffering of Ashley Manes, but appealed to their patriotism and noted the terrorist attacks. “There are decisions of the heart, and there are decisions of the mind,” he said, then asked the jurors to use their minds, rather than their emotions, as an affirmation of the American way of life. “At this time in our country, when things are being attacked — our way of life, our system of government and our system of justice, more than ever, these types of decisions are important.” On Sept. 20, 2001, a Knoxville jury returned a complete defense verdict for Chrysler but ordered the Johnson estate to pay $44 million. This award is meaningless because the estate has no money, said Gilreath. Renee Johnson was only 16 at the time of her death. The plaintiff has filed a motion for new trial, contending juror misconduct. After the verdict, Gilreath learned that during the trial one of the jurors had gone on the Internet, looking for information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on recalls involving the Caravan. This conduct, said Sutter, had no effect on the result of the trial. “The juror went to a Web site and learned about a recall on a Chrysler vehicle. One would expect that would be bad for us.” The plaintiff contends, however, that this action was improper and may have biased the deliberations. A decision on this motion is expected shortly.

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