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On Feb. 6, Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals reversed a $43 million judgment against a car manufacturer in a products liability suit that alleged a defective seat belt caused the 1992 drowning death of a woman who could not escape from her Honda Civic. A three-judge panel of the Houston appeals court held in Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. v. Norman that the deceased’s family failed to establish that an alternative design presented in evidence at the 2000 trial would have prevented or significantly reduced the risk of Karen Norman’s death without, under other circumstances, causing equal or greater risks. The holding, reached by Justice Evelyn Keyes, author of the opinion, Justice Adele Hedges and Justice Terry Jennings, is based on the Texas Supreme Court’s 1998 decision in Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. v. Martinez. “They have to prove the [alternative] design is safer for all drivers,” says Houston attorney David Holman, lead counsel for Honda in the appeal. “There is no evidence here that any of their alternative designs were safer.” A 56th District Court jury in Galveston, Texas, found that a design defect in the seat belt system of Norman’s 1991 Honda was the producing cause of her death after she accidentally backed her car down a boat ramp and ended up sinking in Galveston Bay. Although a passenger in the car escaped and swam to shore, 23-year-old Norman allegedly was trapped by her seat belt. The two women had gone to see “the face,” an apparition that can be seen on a University of Texas Medical Branch building. As legend has it, the building is haunted, and the apparition is the face of the building’s former owner. The 1st Court of Appeals’ opinion said Norman’s body was found in the back seat of the vehicle and that an autopsy revealed her blood-alcohol level was .17. According to the opinion, the jury found that Norman was 25 percent responsible for her death, although Honda had argued in its briefs that she was 100 percent at fault. The jury awarded $65 million in actual damages — $60 million to Norman’s parents and $5 million to her estate — and District Judge Norma Venso reduced the parents’ award to $38 million but kept the award to the estate at $5 million, according to the opinion. “The evidence warranted these monetary damages,” says Warren Harris, appellate attorney for the family. The first trial in the case ended in a hung jury in 1996, Honda noted in its brief to the 1st Court of Appeals. The $43 million judgment came in the second trial. ALTERNATIVES PRESENTED According to the appeals court’s opinion, Norman’s four-door Honda was equipped with an automatic seat belt that mechanically was drawn over an occupant’s shoulder when the door was closed. The shoulder belt on both front seats was attached to a “mouse” that ran along a rail above the door, according to the opinion. The family alleged in their complaint that the system was defective because, among other things, it allowed an occupant to be pinned in the seat and the emergency release button that released the belt was located in a place that was difficult to reach. Levon Hovnatanian, a partner in Houston’s Martin, Disiere, Jefferson & Wisdom and another attorney who represents the auto manufacturer, says the evidence in the case showed the seat belt system in Norman’s Honda Civic was the best system at the time. Holman, a shareholder in Houston’s Holman & Keeling, says the jury awarded $60 million to Norman’s parents based on the allegation at the trial that Honda made $60 million in profits from the sale of the seat belt system. “I think the court of appeals reached the right result based on the record in this case,” Holman says. The 1st Court of Appeals’ opinion stated the plaintiffs presented three alternative designs for seat belts. Harris, a partner in the Houston office of Bracewell & Patterson, says the main alternative design focused on at trial used a lever control release mechanism that was used in Toyota vehicles at the time of Norman’s accident. The Toyota release mechanism was located at the driver’s lower right side, the opinion said. According to the opinion, the use of an alternative design by another manufacturer may establish that the alternative design is technologically feasible, as required by Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code � 82.005. The Normans argued that several witnesses testified that the Honda seat belt was the most expensive seat belt ever produced and, therefore by implication, the less expensive Toyota design must have been economically feasible — another element required under � 82.005. But the 1st Court of Appeals said in the opinion that the Normans’ expert witnesses did not endorse the Toyota system as the alternative design. “The Normans, therefore, failed to prove that the right-hip release system was a safer alternative than the shoulder-release system in Karen’s Honda,” Keyes wrote. Harris says the 1st Court of Appeals’ holding requires more evidence to show that an alternative design does not impose an equal or greater risk than is required by the legal standard set by the Texas Supreme Court in Uniroyal. The Normans will seek a rehearing by the appeals court and will appeal to the supreme court if necessary, he says.

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