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Claims that DaimlerChrysler’s Gen-3 seat belt sometimes opens when it is most needed have gained momentum in Texas, where a new suit alleges that six of seven belts were inadvertently opened during a fatal rollover accident. The suit in the Harris County district court alleges that the seat belt — designed with a controversial, protruding release button — failed to restrain six occupants of a 1996 Chrysler minivan. The vehicle overturned near Beeville, Texas, on Dec. 29, 2002. Two people were killed and a child was left paralyzed. Mendoza v. DaimlerChrysler, No. 2003-13274. The plaintiffs are represented by William R. “Billie” Edwards III of Corpus Christi, Texas’ Edwards Law Firm. In July 2000, Edwards won a $6.7 million judgment in a similar suit alleging that the belt unlatched during a minivan rollover. Moran v. Chrysler, No. 97-60542. (Nueces Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). The case is on appeal to the Texas 13th Court of Appeals. “Lawyers need to be more aware of this because I know of at least one case already where the statute of limitations ran,” he said. An estimated 16 million of the seat belts are in use. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, has gathered reports attributing 14 deaths and 19 serious injuries to alleged Gen-3 unlatchings. The group claims to have documented 138 reported unlatchings from consumers. DaimlerChrysler, in a written statement, denied any defect in the belt, asserting it has “an excellent safety record spanning the past decade.” The company declined to comment specifically on Mendoza, but said that in similar suits it “has found substantial evidence that the seat belt simply was not being worn.” Chrysler, which was represented in Moran by Austin, Texas’ Clark, Thomas & Winters and by Corpus Christi’s Canales & Simonson, said in a written statement that the plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt and that the physical evidence does not support the claim that the belt failed. An appeal is based on that assertion, as well as allegations of reversible error by the trial judge and evidentiary errors. Plaintiffs’ attorneys evaluating a claim that a Gen-3 seat belt unlatched require highly specialized forensic analysis to determine if a seat belt was worn or not, said Larry Coben of Coben & Associates of Scottsdale, Ariz., who has litigated against DaimlerChrysler over the belts. “The problem in these cases is that it looks as though the victim was not wearing a seat belt and you have to do some very specialized forensics and reconstruction,” Coben said. “There are not a lot of experts in this but there is getting to be more because, unfortunately, there are a lot of these seat belts out there.” In Moran, Edwards convinced the jury that a can of car polish in the minivan popped open during the 1996 rollover, splattering the driver’s side of the interior, including parts of the belt that would have been exposed only if the belt was being worn. Edwards also presented crash-test results from DaimlerChrysler and auto-safety regulators in the United States and Canada that, he alleged, proved that the Gen-3, because of its slightly protruding release button, is more likely to be inadvertently opened by passengers flailing during a rollover than belts with a flush button. Chrysler engineers replaced the Gen-3 belt with the Gen-4 on the Dodge Durango and Dodge Dakota based on those tests, but the Gen-3 remains standard on many other models. Courts in Arizona and Nevada have dismissed Gen-3 class actions. A California court denied class certification. A Gen-3 class action has been certified in Texas but is on appeal. Inman v. DaimlerChrysler, No. 13-02-00415-CV (Texas App.-Corpus Christi). Coben said he has settled with DaimlerChrysler on behalf of “about a half-dozen” clients. “We may have settled some cases, but I wouldn’t read too much into that,” DaimlerChrysler spokesman Mike Aberlich said. “We settle cases for all sorts of reasons.”

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