Consumer-friendly decisions from the Alabama Supreme Court have not been that common in recent years. So, we notice when Alabama’s highest court comes down solidly on the side of an injured party. As they did last week when the Court affirmed substantial verdicts favoring a teen-age girl who was severely burned in a car wreck and the family of another teen-age girl who died from the injuries she sustained in the same wreck.
Sydney McLemore was driving a 2008 Mazda vehicle and Natalie Hurst was riding in the front seat when Sydney lost control, and the vehicle struck a light pole at around 30 to 35 mph. The vehicle burst into flames on impact. Sydney escaped, but Natalie did not. McLemore and Hurst’s lawyers produced substantial evidence, including expert testimony, that the fire was caused by a defectively designed gas tank, and that the girls would have survived the low-speed impact relatively unharmed if the gas tank had been properly designed. Specifically, Mazda designed the system so the plastic gas tank was only one-half inch from the hot steel muffler that had protruding edges. The plaintiffs produced over 80 vehicle designs that were in use at the time the McLemore vehicle had been designed by Mazda where the gas tank and muffler were placed on different sides of the axle to specifically prevent these kinds of fires in low-impact crashes.
The Court rejected Mazda’s argument that it should have been allowed to blame Sydney for the fire on grounds that she had been driving the vehicle over the speed limit at the time she lost control. The Court recognized that the vehicle had slowed to 30 to 35 miles per hour at the point of impact. More important, the Court recognized that the critical question was not who caused the crash, but whether the girls would have had any injury at all from the low-speed crash if the fuel system had been properly designed. That’s because automobile manufacturers know that low impact crashes will occur, irrespective of who is at fault for the collision.
Also, very importantly, the Court looked at the amount of the awards and determined they were not too high considering all the evidence. The jury awarded $3.9 million in Natalie’s wrongful death case and $3.0 million in Sydney’s personal injury case. Sydney incurred substantial medical bills, significant pain and suffering, mental anguish, and permanent scarring from the burns, according to the Court.