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A case over a seat belt that yielded a Florida man a $6.3 million award two years ago didn’t produce the same result for a Maryland man recently involved in a similar case with the same expert testifying. That plaintiff, a pediatrician who lost the use of his arms and legs in a car crash, lost his case against Mitsubishi Motors when a federal jury in Detroit rejected his claim that his seat belt unbuckled and failed to restrain him when he crashed his car into a tree nine years ago. Nemir v. Mitsubishi Motors Corp., No. 96-75380 (E.D. Mich.). The Michigan case represented a stark difference from the 2000 verdict reached by a Florida jury in Castro v. Mazda & Takata Corp., No. 98-7857CA (Lee Co. Cir. Ct.), which found the same seat belt to be defective and responsible for a man being thrown from a car. The defense counsel in the more recent case believe a key element in their victory was the way they challenged the testimony of the seat belt expert, who testified that the buckle was defective because it can be “partially latched,” appearing to be fully latched when it is not. Defense attorney David Kelly of Minneapolis-based Bowman and Brooke, who represented Mitsubishi Motors Corp., asserted that the plaintiff’s main expert, Thomas Horton, “worked for the auto industry for years, then only discovered this alleged ‘partial latching’ defect when he went into the business of being a plaintiffs’ personal injury consultant.” The defense also asserted that Horton had made similar “partial latching” defect claims against numerous other seat belt buckles made by other buckle manufacturers. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Craig Hilborn of Hilborn & Hilborn in Birmingham, Mich., said he plans to appeal. “I’m obviously disappointed in the verdict,” Hilborn said. “Obviously, the allegation [about the faulty seat belt] has been made before and plaintiffs have prevailed.” Horton defended his testimony, maintaining that the buckle is defective. “I testified as to what I believed, that the seat belt partially engaged,” he said. “That was a design defect with that buckle, and I still stand by that,” he said. Horton, of Horton and Associates, an engineering consulting firm in Shelby, Mich., added: “All you can do is go in and tell the truth and let the jury decide.” The focal point of the case was a seat belt known as the Takata TK-52 — used on about 35 million cars in North America. The plaintiff, Michael Nemir, claimed that he put his seat belt on, but that it somehow became “partially unlatched” and popped off by itself when he crashed into a tree at 3 a.m. on a rural road near Clear Springs, Md., in 1993. In 1996, three years after the accident, Nemir filed a suit in Detroit, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In 1999, a district judge dismissed his case. On appeal, Nemir won the right to go to trial because the appellate court ruled he had more evidence to present. In the most recent phase of this case, the defense alleged that the plaintiff’s memory was not reliable, that he had not worn his seat belt that night and that the buckle in question was not defective. “Simply stated, our strongest argument was that the plaintiff’s claim simply was not believable,” Kelly said. “Remember, the plaintiff’s claim was that he put his seat belt on, but, somehow, it became ‘partially unlatched’ so it could just pop off by itself. I think that claim was shown to be unbelievable in several ways that piled one on top of the other,” he said.

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