As a Missouri auto accident attorney, I deal frequently with people who suffered permanent, life-changing injuries because of a car crash that was not their fault. For that reason, I was disappointed to see a ruling against a woman who suffered permanent paralysis in a crash involving allegedly insufficient seatbelts. In Nemmers v. Ford Motor Co., Kayla Nemmers appealed several rulings from a trial that ended with a verdict against her on her auto products liability claim. Nemmers was a center passenger in a 2007 crash involving someone else’s Ford F-250 pickup, in which she was thrown from the truck despite wearing a lap belt. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reverse several adverse rulings, allowing the verdict against her to stand.
Nemmers was riding between driver Bradley Chrest and his brother, passenger Raymond Chrest, in a seat equipped only with a lap belt. The truck slipped on a snowy dirt road in rural Iowa, causing it to hit a tree, turn counterclockwise and roll over onto its back. Nemmers was thrown from the truck and suffered an irreversible spinal injury leading to paralysis. This was the basis for her lawsuit against Ford, which alleged that the truck was not “crashworthy”—that is, it protected occupants insufficiently in a crash—because the lap belt should have also had a shoulder restraint. She alleged negligence, failure to warn, strict liability and breach of warranties. After a full trial, however, the jury found for Ford. Nemmers appealed rulings including admission of evidence; inclusion of certain jurors; and refusal to give a curative instruction after certain remarks by opposing counsel.
The Eighth Circuit rejected all three arguments. First, it tackled the admission of evidence that Bradley Chrest had been drinking on the night of the accident. Nemmers argued that this was irrelevant to her case because she was arguing that the truck was poorly designed to withstand a crash. The court disagreed; Iowa law permits juries to consider comparative fault even in claims for strict liability (which include product defect claims). Nemmers also challenged the admission at trial of speculation that she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. This turned on an Iowa statute that the Eighth Circuit said was silent about admission of seatbelt evidence offered on causation, and the appeals court concluded that the Iowa Supreme Court would allow it. The court then declined to consider another evidentiary issue for briefing defects. On the jury issue, the court found no evidence that the jurors in question were prejudiced. And the Eighth found no abuse of discretion in the failure to instruct jurors to ignore a comment that she could have been further injured by “being dragged out of the truck’s back window by a couple of drunk men.”
As a St. Louis auto products liability lawyer, I am sorry to see that Nemmers will not get another chance to prove her case. Her injuries are permanent and life-altering, and clearly not her fault, since she was a passenger in the truck. For someone confronting a permanent disability, a lawsuit isn’t just about getting justice; it’s also a question of recovering the money required to get treatment and the accommodations necessary to live independently (if possible). In this case, Nemmers also has a minor son whose care and financial support she must consider. It’s not my role as a southern Illinois products liability attorney to question the Eighth Circuit’s rulings, but in a case like this, I do everything I can to ensure that my clients aren’t hamstrung by adverse evidentiary rulings that tip the balance in favor of the other side.
If you or someone you love suffered a serious injury because of the failure of a car or one of its parts, don’t hesitate to contact Carey, Danis & Lowe to discuss how we can help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us an email or call 1-877-678-3400.
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