Driver suffers stroke, severe brain injury when air bag fails to deploy

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December 2014/January 2015
 

Nicole Thompson, 19, was driving her 1998 Dodge Neon in the center lane of a road when a motorist in the left lane sideswiped the Neon. It veered to the right, struck the curb, and crashed head-on into a large power pole. Although the car was traveling more than 30 mph at the time of the collision, the driver’s front air bag failed to deploy.

Thompson suffered bilateral dissections of the carotid arteries in her neck, leading to a massive stroke that caused brain damage and partial paralysis. She also suffered a back injury at L5-S1. She underwent surgery to repair the damaged arteries, followed by speech, occupational, and extensive physical therapy, but she was left with permanent cognitive and speech impairments. She now suffers from slowed thought-processing, impaired decision-making, loss of short-term memory, and somatic disorder. She also suffers from seizures, for which she requires medication, and she has lost the effective use of her right hand, which was her dominant hand before the collision.

At the time of the incident, Thompson was attending college on a scholarship and was in the pre-nursing program. She lost the scholarship because she could only take one class a time after the collision and was required to take a full load. She was also a talented violinist before the collision, but she is no longer able to play the violin. She suffers from depression and emotional distress, and she may require fusion at L4-5 or a nerve stimulator to address ongoing back pain. Her past medical expenses totaled about $1.2 million.

Thompson sued TRW Automotive U.S. LLC, which manufactured the Neon’s air bags and the air bag electronic control module (AECM), which was designed to sense the vehicle’s deceleration during a frontal collision and signal the bags whether or not to deploy. The plaintiff contended that the AECM was defective because it failed to meet consumer expectations and deploy an air bag in the collision.

The plaintiff asserted that, according to the Neon’s owners’ manual, the front air bags were designed to deploy “when the ACEM detects a moderate-to-severe frontal collision.” Despite this, she contended, her air bag failed to deploy, even though she was in a moderate-to-severe frontal collision, because of a defective algorithm. Had the air bag deployed as designed, the plaintiff contended, she would not have suffered the hyperextension injury to her neck that caused the stroke or the flexion injury to her back.

The plaintiff contended that as a result of her injuries, she lost a possible career in nursing. She claimed damages for lost earnings, medical expenses, and pain and suffering, among other damages.

TRW argued that the air bag sensor made the correct decision because the plaintiff was not wearing her seat belt and was therefore out of position at the time, so that if the air bag had deployed, it would have caused her even more severe injuries than she already suffered.

The plaintiff countered that she was wearing her seatbelt but that it malfunctioned and offered only partial restraint, making the air bag all the more necessary. She also presented evidence that she was not out of position and that TRW’s algorithm uses faulty logic in this regard and should not have suppressed the air bag.

TRW additionally argued that the plaintiff’s injuries were not caused by the pole collision, but were sustained before the pole impact, when her vehicle hit the curb.

The jury found that the AECM was defective and that the defect caused Thompson’s injuries. It awarded about $3.35 million, including about $1.01 million for future pain and suffering, disability, and impaired quality of life; $965,000 for past medical expenses, about $861,700, for past pain and suffering, disability, and impaired quality of life; about $182,700 for future lost earnings; $154,000 for past lost earnings; $100,000 for future medical expenses; and $75,000 for other, nonmedical expenses.

TRW has filed motions for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, as well as motions to offset prior settlements. The plaintiff has moved to amend the judgment to add prejudgment interest. Counsel anticipates an appeal.

Citation: Thompson v. TRW Automotive U.S. LLC, No. 2:09-cv-01375 (D. Nev. Aug. 27, 2014).

Plaintiff counsel: Edward J. Achrem, Las Vegas; and Clay Robbins III, Los Angeles.

Plaintiff experts: Chris Caruso, air bags, Henderson, Nev.; Charles Benedict, seat belts, Tallahassee, Fla.; Peter Orner, biomechanics, Escondido, Calif.; Kerry Berg, accident reconstruction, San Bernardino, Calif.; and Scott Selco, neurology, Las Vegas.

Defense experts: Elizabeth Raphael, biomechanics, Palo Alto, Calif.; Gregory Stephens, accident reconstruction, Gig Harbor, Wash.; Michael Klima, seat belts, Novi, Mich.; Jeffrey Pearson, air bags, Rochester, Mich.; and Jeffrey Rochette, AECM, Shanghai City, China.