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The car sales division of Enterprise Rent-A-Car has reached a $1.3 million settlement with the family of a Havertown, Pa., teen whose 2002 death was allegedly caused in part by the faultiness of a seatbelt in the SUV she purchased from the company. Lawyers for the family of Alison Ciancio said that other payments stemming from Ciancio v. Brinkley include the $15,000 policy limit from the insurer of Jamal Brinkley, the allegedly drunk driver whose car struck Ciancio’s; $200,000 in underinsured motorist coverage from a Ciancio family policy; and $453,000 from the insurance policy of Wynnewood Lanes, the bowling alley whose bar was said to have served Brinkley alcohol the night of the accident. Plaintiffs lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky said the dispute between the Ciancios and Enterprise raised a number of difficult questions concerning the extent of the applicability of the “seatbelt defense,” the statutory provision that prevents lack of seatbelt usage from being entered into evidence in civil matters. According to court papers in Ciancio, the left rear passenger seatbelt was defective in that it would not spool out at the time Alison’s Jeep Cherokee was purchased in December 2001. In bringing suit against Enterprise, according to court papers, the Ciancios claimed that the passenger seated behind Alison during the accident had not been able to wear a seatbelt, causing his body to lunge forward into Alison’s seatback when Brinkley’s car struck the Jeep, which in turn caused Alison’s head and upper body to fatally strike the steering column. The defense planned to argue that under the seatbelt defense, no belt usage evidence should be permitted at trial; the plaintiffs intended to respond that the reductio ad absurdum of such an interpretation would be auto manufacturers enjoying virtual immunity for intentionally outfitting their cars with defective seatbelts, said Mongeluzzi, who handled the case with David Kwass. Enterprise’s attorney agreed that the case presented an unusual factual scenario. “This case probably had three or four unique and pivotal issues that have never really been resolved by the [current] seatbelt defense case law,” said Guy Mercogliano of Sweeney & Sheehan. According to court papers, Alison was aware of the defective seatbelt when the Jeep was bought from Enterprise. The Ciancios claimed that after the vehicle was purchased, Alison returned to Enterprise Car Sales on two separate occasions to get the seatbelt repaired, but was told the first time that a new part needed to be ordered, and was told the second time that the part had not yet arrived. The defense had countered that there was no reason why Alison could not have left the vehicle to be repaired instead of using the Jeep while the seatbelt was defective, according to court papers, and that in not leaving it to be repaired, she assumed the risk of using it in imperfect condition. Other factual disputes between the plaintiffs and the defense, according to Mongeluzzi and Mercogliano, included whether the passenger behind Alison even knew the seatbelt was broken and would have otherwise used it, and whether it had been the movement of that passenger’s body that had actually jostled Alison’s seatback. Mongeluzzi said that there were multiple claimants to the $900,000 policy of Wynnewood Lanes, including one of the passengers in Brinkley’s vehicle. After a mid-October mediation conducted by Harris Bock of the Dispute Resolution Institute as to allocation of that money, it was determined that $453,000 would go to Alison Ciancio’s estate. The Ciancios and Enterprise submitted to mediation before Thomas Rutter of ADR Options Inc. A first attempt to resolve the matter in early October was not successful. The parties met again with Rutter last week, ultimately agreeing to the $1.3 million settlement. According to court papers, the Ciancios had initially demanded over $6.8 million to settle the case. “To put it in perspective,” Mercogliano said, “the final settlement amount is a fraction of what the demand was a few days earlier. Given the potential of an eight-figure verdict, the client was satisfied with the settlement.” Kwass and Mongeluzzi, who were assisted by Saltz Mongeluzzi of counsel Stanley and Daniel Schwarz, noted that the Ohio Supreme Court ruled last month that evidence of nonuse of a seat belt is admissible in cases where injured parties claim their crash injuries were aggravated by a design defect in their cars. “This is a very hot issue,” Kwass said of the applicability of the seatbelt defense in Pennsylvania. Mongeluzzi called Ciancio “one of the saddest cases we’ve ever handled.” At the time of her death, Alison Ciancio was on winter break from Iowa State University, where she had been studying to be a trainer of guide dogs. “Alison was just a magnificent young woman who had a deep and abiding concern for others,” Mongeluzzi said. Wynnewood Lanes was represented in the case by M. Scott Gemberling of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. He did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

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