State Supreme Court Affirms $3.9 Million Jury Verdicts in Mazda 3 Fuel Tank Design Defect Case

Mazda Motor Corp. appealed a judgment involving its Mazda 3 car. There were two jury verdicts that resulted from two product liability claims filed in Alabama. The lawsuits arose out of a crash involving a Mazda 3 driven by then 16-year-old Sydney McLemore, with 15-year-old Natalie Hurst as a passenger.

McLemore was driving 55 mph in a 35-mile-per-hour speed zone when she lost control of the car. The Mazda spun around and hit a light pole before coming to a stop and then burst into flames.

McLemore suffered third-degree burns covering approximately 15% of her body. Unfortunately, Natalie Hurst died from her burn injuries. The Hurst parents filed a lawsuit against Mazda and McLemore, asserting wrongful death. They also filed what was important in this case — a product liability lawsuit and claim related to the fuel tank of the Mazda 3.

In terms of a specific product liability claim, the Hurst family alleged that Mazda erred by designing the 2008 Mazda 3 so that a plastic fuel tank was positioned too close to the steel muffler, which had sharp protruding edges. It was placed in such a way that when the vehicle was hit on impact, the muffler’s sharp edge cut the fuel tank, causing the fuel tank to fail and allowing gasoline vapors to escape and ignite. In this case, the gas vapors caused the post-collision fuel-fed fire.

The appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court concluded after review of the trial court record that the trial judge did not err with respect to the admission of certain expert testimony. As to the McLemore punitive damage claim for wanton disregard for the safety of passengers and users of the Mazda vehicle, that element, the Supreme Court said, should not have been submitted to the jury.  The judgment must be reversed insofar as it included a punitive damage award based on that claim.

According to the decision, the record did not support an award of punitive damages in connection with the McLemore claim against Mazda. Further, Mazda has chosen not to present any convincing argument that would allow a remittitur, or a reduction in the Hurst’s damages award on their wrongful-death claim, and therefore the jury’s compensatory $3.9 million verdict in favor of the Hurst and against Mazda would stand.

The trial court was therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings.

Mazda Motor Corporation v. Hurst, No. 1140545, Supreme Court of Alabama (July 7, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automotive defect lawsuits, wrongful death cases, product liability lawsuits and catastrophic fire injury lawsuits for individuals, families and the loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Chicago (Portage Park, Norwood Park, West Ridge, Belmont Cragin, Dunning, Humboldt Park, West Garfield Park, Archer Heights, Grand Boulevard, Fuller Park, Washington Heights, West Pullman, Mount Greenwood, Riverdale, South Deering, Calumet Heights, Woodlawn, Kenwood, Grand Boulevard), Mount Prospect, Palos Park, Lincolnshire, Long Grove, Orland Park, Winnetka, Deerfield, Worth, Harvey and Dolton, Ill.

Kreisman Law Offices was part of the plaintiffs’ case in a defective motor vehicle fuel tank defect lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County that settled while the jury was deliberating. The settlement of $3 million was reached for the deaths of three members of a family. The trial, over more than 3 weeks, included many automotive engineers, fire experts, economists and other automotive design experts.

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