Toyota Seat Belt Blamed for Paralysis


Five inches made the difference between 36-year-old Jian Zhong Yang walking away from a car accident and being left a quadriplegic, his attorney, Garo Mardirossian, claims.

Yang’s 1992 Toyota Paseo lap belt anchor was five inches forward of where it needed to be to protect a short, slight man like Yang, the Los Angeles attorney contends. And Toyota Motor Corp. is to
blame, he charges.

As soon as today, Mardirossian begins trying to convince jurors in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom that a design defect in the seat belt was what paralyzed his client.

He seeks at least $30 million in economic damages and additional punitive damages.

Yang was paralyzed in a June 22, 2000 accident on the Golden State Freeway when the driver of a 1999 Toyota Camry spun out of control, hit another car, bounced off the center divider and
crashed into Yang’s Paseo, which was traveling about 65 mph to 70 mph.

Toyota doesn’t deny that Yang’s injuries were catastrophic or resulted from the accident. But the company insists the seatbelts in the 1992 Paseo are safe.”

Toyota acknowledges that Mr. Yang was in a terrible accident,” Toyota’s Holly Ferris said. “However, the 1992 Toyota Paseo was a well-designed vehicle. His injuries were not due to any design or
engineering flaws.

At impact, Yang, who is 5-foot seven and weighed 125 pounds, slid under the lapbelt and was “clothes-lined” around the neck by the shoulder-harness, which severed his spinal cord in two places,
Mardirossian of Mardirossian & Associates says.

The accident happened less than a month before the Chinese immigrant cook and his wife, Yuan Xue Lee, both 36, had their first child Annie, now 2, Mardirossian added.

On June 1, 2001, the couple sued the Camry driver, Emin Adjemian, and Toyota Motor Corp. claiming negligence, among other things. Yang v. Toyota Motor Corp., BC251570 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed June 1, 2001).

The couple settled earlier this year with Adjemian for his insurance policy’s maximum payout of $100,000, leaving Toyota the remaining defendant.

The 1992 Paseo was equipped with front seat shoulder harnesses that automatically strapped in the passenger or driver. The occupant had to attach the lap belt manually.

Yang was wearing both belts when the accident happened.

Mardirossian says experts will testify that Yang’s lap belt anchor was installed five inches from where it should have been, and that the shoulder harness could not be adjusted to for shorter passengers and drivers.

Had it not been for those defects, “he would not have submarined under the lap belt and the shoulder harness would not have caught him in the neck,” Mardirossian said. “He should have
walked away… like everybody else in this accident.”

Mardirossian said there have been other, though not many, cases filed against Toyota alleging a design defect with the dual-fasten seat belts, which were later replaced by three-point restraints
and airbags.

In one similar case, a judge in Hawaii found Toyota 90 percent liable for a seatbelt defect, which allegedly left the plain-
tiff a quadriplegic.

For the trial, Mardirossian is teaming up with Marina del Rey attorney Charlie O’Reilly, with whom he litigated a Ford Explorer rollover case. The pair won a $14.9 million settlement after a jury found Ford liable for a defect in the popular sports utility vehicle.

For the defense, Toyota has turned to outside counsel at Bowman & Brooke, including David W. Graves out of the firm’s Minneapolis office and H. Franklin Hostetler from Torrance.

Graves declined to comment on the case outside Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien’s courtroom, where jury selection was under way Tuesday. Opening arguments are set for today, Mardirossian’s office said.

The Bowman & Brooke form has represented American Honda Motor Co. Inc., BMW of North American and General Motors in product liability cases.

Recently, Bowman & Brooke won a Yolo County case filed by a 17-year-old girl, who is a quadriplegic from a rollover
accident involving a Ford Escort.

O’Brien who retired in August 1999 and sits as an assigned judge, has presided over several high-stakes court awards including a $17.9 jury verdict last January in a medical malpractice lawsuit
involving a child born with multiple birth defects.


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