C.A. Upholds $20 Million Judgment in Vehicle Rollover

The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday upheld a $20 million products liability judgment against Land Rover North America Inc. in favor of a Simi Valleyman rendered quadriplegic during a 2003 roll-over accident.

Div. Seven said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien’s finding of strict liability under the “risk-benefit” test was “amply supported” by evidence the Land Rover Discovery (Series 1) sport utility vehicle’s design presented an excessive preventable danger to Sukhsagar Pannu.

Pannu was driving his 1998 Discovery westbound on the 118 Freeway in December 2003 when his vehicle was struck by another car. The collision forced the Discovery toward the far right lane, where it struck another vehicle, forcing it off the shoulder and up the embankment adjacent to the freeway. The driver of this vehicle testified that he saw the Discovery roll over several times along the right shoulder of the freeway before coming to a stop on its roof.

As a result of injuries he sustained in the collisions, Pannu was paralyzed below his chest and lost mobility and dexterity in his hands and arms. He later sued Land Rover alleging claims, among others, for strict liability based on defective design.

After a bench trial, O’Brien-who retired from the court in 1999 but frequently sits on assignment-found Land Rover liable for defects in the Discovery’s stability controls and roof. He determined the vehicle “did not perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected at the time of the accident” since consumers “reasonably expect that manufacturers will anticipate negligent accidents occurring that can put the automobile into uncontrollable movements.”

The judge also said Pannu had carried his burden of proving the roof and stability design of the vehicle was a substantial factor in causing his injury, and Land Rover had failed to establish the benefits of the design outweighed its inherent risks.

He entered judgment in favor of Pannu for $21.654 million, apportioning five percent of the fault to the settling driver of the vehicle which had struck Pannu’s SUV and the remaining 95 percent to Land Rover.

Writing for the appellate court, Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss said the question of whether a consumer would reasonably expect with regard to the Discovery’s alleged stability and roof defects was “an exceedingly close question” which did not need to be resolved since the “risk-benefit” test justified the judgment in favor of Pannu.

Perluss said Land Rover’s argument on appeal, focusing on what caused Pannu’s vehicle to roll, “fundamentally misperceive[d] the nature of Pannu’s burden.” The justice explained Pannu only had to show he “more probably than not” had been injured by a defect in the Discovery’s design.

He noted the evidence proffered by Pannu during trial showing that a production Discovery would tip under evasive steering maneuvers and slight modifications to the vehicle’s track width, center of gravity, and roof support “dramatically improved its rollover resistance” and “yielded substantial gains in roof strength” at a cost of about $76 per vehicle. This evidence, which Land Rover did not rebut, “was more than sufficient” to establish that the vehicle was defectively designed and that the benefits of the design did not outweigh the risks, the jurist said.

The presiding justice declined to reweigh the evidence as to how Pannu’s injury occurred, opining O’Brein’s conclusion that the harm was caused by deformation of the roof was supported by substantial evidence.

Perluss added that Pannu “proved not only the defects existed, but also that Land Rover knew of the dangers of rollover by the time his vehicle was manufactured in 1998 and corrected them in the resdesign of the Discovery…which debuted in the United States in 1999,” which established the auto maker’s liability for failure to warn.

Justices Fred Woods and Laurie D. Zelon joined Perluss in his decision.

Garo Mardirossian, Jill P. McDonell and Armen Akaragian of Mardirossian & Associates Inc. represented Pannu, along with Stanley K. Jacobs of Jacobs, Jacobs & Eisfelder.

Mardirossian said yesterday’s decision was “something we’d been waiting for,” which would give Pannu and his family “that extra income they so need to help pay for the medical care and the caregivers” which Pannu requires.

The attorney emphasized that “all the money in the world will not make Mr. Pannu what he was before,” noting his client had been a “world-class athlete” who once played for the Hong Kong national field hockey team. However Pannu has “adjusted to his lot in life,” and is “very positive” and is “happy to be alive,” Mardirossian said.

Mardirossian also cautioned the model of Land Rover involved in his client’s car accident is “still out there,” and those vehicles “have the same defects in them.”

He said his “dream” would be to have Land Rover issue a recall and take corrective measures with these cars or “at least warn everyone who owns a similar vehicle” of it’s “propensity to roll” and “weak roof.”

The attorney noted “it only costs about a hundred bucks” for alterations to be made to the vehicle to make it safer, and that even the verdict would “not be a significant outlay of cash” for Land Rover’s parent company, India’s Tata Motors, which acquired the Land Rover and Jaguar brands from Ford Motors in 2008 for $2.3 billion.

Mardirossiananalogized the judgment to “a fly on an elephant,” but said he hoped “enough flies would land on the elephant” to make a difference.

Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., William E. Thomson and Blaine H. Evanson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher represented Land Rover. Efforts to reach Bourtrous and Thomson yesterday were unsuccessful.

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