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Estate claimed Toyota SUV axle had manufacturing defect

Amount:

$12,000,000

Type:

Verdict-Plaintiff

State:

South Carolina

Venue:

Anderson County

Court:

Anderson County, Court of Common Pleas, Anderson

Injury Type(s):

other-death

Case Type:

Motor Vehicle – Rollover; Products Liability – SUV; Motor Vehicle – Single Vehicle; Products Liability – Automobiles; Wrongful Death – Survival Damages; Products Liability – Strict Liability, Breach of Warranty, Manufacturing Defect

Case Name:

Donald L. Dial, Personal Representative of Lacee Michaela Dial, deceased v. Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor Sales USA, and A&P Automotive, Inc.,
No. 2013-CP-04-01483

Date:

June 1, 2018

Parties

Plaintiff(s):

Donald L. Dial , 

Lacee Michaela Dial (Female, 17 Years)

Plaintiff Attorney(s):

Chris Glover;
Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles PC;
Atlanta,
GA,
for
Donald L. Dial, Lacee Michaela Dial

Plaintiff Expert(s):

C. Clarke; Ph.D., P.E.; Metallurgy; Mobile,
AL called by:
Chris Glover ■ G. Buchner; P.E.; Accident Reconstruction; Tallahassee,
FL called by:
Chris Glover

Defendant(s):

Toyota Motor Corp., 

A&P Automotive Inc., 

Toyota Motor Sales USA

Defense Attorney(s):

Joel H. Smith;
Bowman and Brooke LLP;
Columbia,
SC,
for
Toyota Motor Corp., A&P Automotive Inc., Toyota Motor Sales USA

Defendant Expert(s):

Gary Fowler;
Metallurgy;
Gardena,
CA called by:
Joel H. Smith ■ Geoffrey Germane;
Accident Reconstruction;
Provo,
UT called by:
Joel H. Smith

Facts:

On Sept. 15, 2012, Lacee Michaela Dial, 17, was killed in an automobile crash on Elrod Road in Piedmont. She had been driving a 1999 Toyota 4Runner sport utility vehicle on Elrod Road, a paved, flat, two-lane highway, when the rear axle broke, causing the left rear wheel to wobble and then detach. The vehicle rolled over several times on the driver’s side and struck a utility pole. Dial was trapped for about two hours in the vehicle before she died from her injuries. She had been on her way to a veterinary clinic to apply for an internship. Dial’s father, Donald L. Dial, as representative of the estate of his daughter, sued Japanese vehicle manufacturer Toyota Motor Corp. and U.S. affiliate Toyota Motor Sales USA. The estate also sued the dealership where the Dials had bought the vehicle, but it was dismissed prior to trial. Counsel for the estate alleged that a manufacturing defect caused the 4Runner SUV’s rear axle to crack and fail during daily driving. Specifically, counsel claimed that the axle had been overheated during the manufacturing process, which weakened the metal. As a result, the axle fractured and caused the accident. The estate called as a witness a driver who had seen the accident. The driver testified that he had seen the left rear wheel wobbling while the SUV was losing control, before it rolled over. The estate also called on an accident reconstruction expert, who opined that the rear axle failure was caused by a defect and had prevented Lacee from regaining control of the vehicle. A metallurgy expert for the estate said that an analysis of the axle indicated the defect had been caused by over-heating during the manufacturing process, which had weakened the metal. Microscopic analysis showed there were “large grains” in the metal, which was a result of weakening from over-heating. After the axle was manufactured, sometime between 1999, when the Toyota 4Runner was sold, and the 2012, when crash occurred, the axle was damaged by a low-force impact, such as a curb strike, the expert said. There was evidence of the previous impact by dents and burn marks on the axle. Because of the already weakened condition of the axle, this minor impact caused cracks and further weakness in the metal. As a result, when Lacee was driving on Elrod Road, the axle snapped under pressures that did not reach the level normally necessary break an axle. When Lacee was driving, the expert estimated, the greatest lateral force on the axle was about 3,000 pounds. However, it should have taken 14,900 pounds to break a properly manufactured axle. The fact that the axle fractured at such low forces was evidence that it was cracked and weakened before the crash. According to the expert, both the physical evidence and the witness’s testimony indicated that the axle broke before the vehicle rolled over, at a place where there was a gouge-mark on the road. Counsel for the estate argued that the axle was in the same condition as when it left the manufacturer because the prior low-impact incident was a foreseeable event, and not an alteration of the axle. Counsel for Toyota denied that the axle had a manufacturing defect. Toyota’s metallurgical expert opined that the company’s metallurgical analysis indicated the axle was properly heat-hardened. The fracture occurred during the accident, not before, to an undamaged axle which experienced a single impact overload fracture, caused by the vehicle rolling over and hitting the utility pole. Toyota’s accident reconstruction expert also opined that physical evidence showed that the axle did not fracture until the vehicle rolled over.

Injury:

After rolling over and crashing into the utility pole, the vehicle came to a rest on its side, with the driver’s side pinned against the pole. Counsel claimed that Lacee was trapped and conscious inside the vehicle for about two hours. She died at the scene. The estate sought survival damages and wrongful death damages for their daughter’s conscious pain and suffering during the hours she was trapped in the SUV. Counsel for Toyota argued that, while Lacee’s death was tragic, there was no evidence that she had endured conscious pain and suffering for two hours and no evidence that measured the severity of her suffering. The defense argued that evidence showed Lacee was conscious for approximately 42 minutes.

Result:

The jury found in favor of Lacee’s estate, determining that Toyota was liable for the accident, either through strict liability or breach of warranty. The jury awarded $6 million in compensatory damages to the estate and $6 million to Lacee Dial for her conscious pain and suffering.

Donald L. Dial: $6,000,000 Personal Injury: compensatory damages; Lacee Michaela Dial: $6,000,000 Wrongful Death: Survival

Trial Information:

Judge:

J. Cordell Maddox Jr.

Trial Length:

10
 days

Trial Deliberations:

5
 hours

Editor’s Comment:

This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiffs’ counsel. Defense counsel did not respond to the reporter’s phone calls.