On July 29, 2009, Supreme Court Judge Nicholas Colabella of the New York Supreme Court in Westchester County issued a defense verdict for our client, Volkswagen Group of America, in a wrongful death case that had been pending since 1997.
The case arose as a result of an automobile accident that occurred on the Saw Mill River Parkway in May 1995 involving a 1989 VW Jetta. The operator was killed when he struck a light pole at a high rate of speed. The vehicle did not have air bags, but was equipped with a passive restraint system that, among other components, had a torso belt that positioned properly on the occupant when the door was shut, and a knee bolster in lieu of a lap belt (the “VWRA” system).
The decedent’s wife and two minor children brought a wrongful death claim alleging that the VWRA was defective and unreasonably dangerous in its design, and that the structure of the longitudinal and cross members of the Jetta were defective and unreasonably dangerous. They further claimed that the decedent should have survived the collision with only minor injuries.
The case was pending between 1997 and the summer of 2008 and handled by VW National Coordinating Counsel and another trial counsel. During that time, a motion for summary judgment had been granted, and affirmed by the intermediate appellate court, but reinstated by the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court; after which followed a motion to dismiss based on federal preemption, which was denied, appealed, but affirmed by the intermediate appellate court.
The case was sent back for trial, and in September 2008, Paul Williams was asked to take over trial counsel responsibilities replacing trial counsel who had become ill. Paul had successfully defended VW in other lawsuits. VW moved for a hearing on the basis of Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923) to challenge the sufficiency of plaintiffs’ expert witness’s methodology and foundation for his opinions, and also to seek preemption of the claims directed to the VWRA.
Initially, the court was not interested in conducting such a hearing, preferring to submit all the claims to the jury; however, after the jury was selected, the court ordered a pretrial hearing, and required the parties to put on expert testimony. Over the course of two weeks beginning April 14, 2009, the case was tried before Judge Colabella. Plaintiff’s engineering expert was James Pugh, who holds a PhD from MIT.
Paul cross-examined Dr. Pugh for more than two days. Paul then put on testimony from all of defendant’s experts, including a biomechanical expert, Dr. Murray MacKay, from the United Kingdom, two engineers on behalf of Volkswagen, one from Germany and one from New Jersey, and an accident reconstructionist, Mark Warner, from Orem, Utah. At the end of the hearing, plaintiffs’ counsel suddenly announced that the plaintiff wished to waive her right to a jury trial and asked the Judge to decide liability issues based on what he had heard during the Frye hearing.
On July 29, 2009, the Judge issued a defense verdict on all issues, finding that: 1) the plaintiff’s claim concerning the VWRA was pre-empted by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard Regulations; 2) plaintiffs’ expert, James Pugh, PhD had not used any proper methodology and lacked an adequate scientific foundation for the opinions reached; and 3) the 1989 Jetta was not defective and unreasonably dangerous as designed.
Special thanks to Kathi Cohun, (who prepared and organized hundreds of exhibits, coordinated digital evidence and handled all logistics flawlessly), Anna Dumais, Dan Foster, Martin Magnusson (who provided terrific research and brief support), and the Stamford office services team who made our client and all our witnesses feel at home.