Recent $2.375 Million Award in South Carolina Crashworthiness Case

A Florence, South Carolina jury recently awarded $2.375 million in actual damages to a girl, now 11, who suffered burns to 15% to 20% of her body when the fuel tank of her family’s Nissan Xterra caught fire following a collision. The highest pre-trial settlement offer reportedly was $450,000. Courtney v. Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., Civil Action No. 2007-CP-21-1449, in the Florence County, South Carolina Court of Common Pleas.

According to South Carolina Lawyers Weekly (see coverage here), the girl, 9 years old at the time of injury, was riding with her family as a passenger in the vehicle outside of their church near Lake City, South Carolina, when they were involved in a collision with a pickup truck. Church members and emergency personnel were able to help remove the family from the vehicle reportedly within seconds of impact, but the child suffered the burns, including facial burns, from her position in the seat just above the fuel tank.

The plaintiff set forth causes of action for strict liability and breach of warranty, arguing that Nissan failed to ensure the crashworthiness of the vehicle because a small metal bracket was likely to puncture the fuel tank in the event of a side collision. The plaintiff reportedly utilized experts from Texas, Utah, California and Japan, among others, to testify to such issues as the alleged foreseeability of the bracket’s puncturing of the fuel tank. Nissan, in turn, argued that the tank rupture was due to the severe and unique circumstances of the collision, which had placed extreme, concentrated energy at the location of the bracket.

The jury apparently was able to overlook two important challenges to the plaintiff’s case: (1) the SUV had complied with all federal standards; and (2) it was the driver of the Nissan Xterra who admittedly was at fault in causing the accident. The plaintiff’s position, according to her attorney, was that if the vehicle had been built according to European standards rather than U.S. standards, whereby the bracket would have been placed no closer than 100 millimeters from the fuel tank, then the fire would not have occurred.

In any event, the jury ultimately sided with the plaintiff, finding the case warranted actual damages without the imposition of a punitive award.

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