Richmond Appeals & Issues Team Wins Reversal of $32 Million Judgment

September 12, 2016

A McGuireWoods team representing Holiday Motor Corp., Mazda Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor of America, Inc. obtained reversal of a $20 million jury award plus $12 million in pre- and post-judgment interest against the defendants in a major product liability decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The plaintiff, Shannon Walters, was severely injured and permanently paralyzed when her Mazda Miata soft-top convertible rolled over as she swerved to avoid debris that had fallen off a truck in front of her. She alleged Mazda was liable for her injuries because latches that held the soft-top convertible to the windshield header were defectively designed, allowing the header to separate from the soft-top, press down on her head and break her neck. 

Mazda argued that it had no duty to design the soft top or its latches to withstand a rollover crash and highlighted that there are no industry standards regarding convertibles that supported the plaintiff’s allegations. In fact, a key industry standard on rollover protection, FMVSS 216, expressly excludes convertibles from its roof-crush requirements. Mazda also argued that the plaintiff’s expert witness on liability had no foundation for his opinion that the latches were defective.    

The Virginia Supreme Court agreed with Mazda and reversed on grounds that Mazda had no duty to design and manufacture a convertible or a convertible’s latches that would provide occupant protection under rollover circumstances. The court also held that the plaintiff’s expert witness opinion – that the convertible’s soft-top latching system was defective in its design – was founded upon assumptions with no basis in fact and was therefore inadmissible.

The McGuireWoods Richmond team handling the appeal included partner Tracy Walker and associate S. Virginia Bondurant (both Product & Consumer Litigation), and senior counsel Robert Loftin (Business & Securities Litigation). 

“While we have great sympathy for the injuries suffered by Ms. Walters, we have always maintained that the Mazda Miata involved in the accident was well-designed and constructed and safe for its intended use,” said Walker, who was lead counsel for Mazda on the appeal.

Law360 subscribers can read its coverage of the decision here