Virginia Supreme Court reverses $20 million verdict
for woman in Bedford County crash

By Neil Harvey, The Roanoke Times – 9/8/2016

The Virginia Supreme Court has reversed a $20 million verdict for a woman partially paralyzed after her Mazda Miata overturned in Bedford County in 2006.

That award, which came at the end of a jury trial in 2014, was believed to have been the largest of its kind ever to come out of Roanoke Circuit Court.

But in an opinion released Thursday, justices took issue with both a key claim brought against the manufacturer, Mazda Motor Corp., and with an opinion offered at trial by an expert witness for the plaintiff.

The driver, Shannon Walters, sued Mazda, and during a jury trial in October 2014, she testified that while driving on Virginia 619 at night, a plastic swimming pool blew off the back of a truck in front of her.

Walters swerved to avoid the large object and went off the highway, where her 1995 Miata convertible flipped over onto its soft top. The car’s windshield collapsed onto Walters, injuring her and leaving- her paralyzed from the chest down.

The lawsuit claimed that Walters had not been speeding nor driving recklessly, and it argued that a latching system should have held the windshield and canvas roof together when the car rolled. Walters’ suit called the car’s design “unreasonably dangerous.”

“The latches failed their intended safety purpose of keeping the structures connected and thus away from the occupant,” her suit claimed.

In the written opinion by the court, however, Justice Elizabeth McClanahan said, “Our well-settled jurisprudence establishes that the manufacturer of a product is only under a duty ‘to exercise ordinary care to design a product that is reasonably safe for the purpose for which it is intended,’ ” and found that Mazda wasn’t bound to make a soft top that protected the vehicle’s occupants from rollover crashes.

The opinion also called into question testimony by an expert witness who claimed that the latching system was defectively designed.

“There was simply no basis for his assumption that the front end of the roof structure would not have collapsed during the rollover crash if the latches had remained connected,” McClanahan wrote, a point she said proved “fatal” to Walters’ claims for negligence.

Representatives for both Walters and Mazda could not be reached Thursday.

After the 2014 verdict, the car company issued a statement in which it expressed sympathy for Walters but disagreed that allegations of a defect had been proven.

“No reasonable person could expect a convertible to prevent injury in such a crash,” the statement said.

The jury awarded Walters not only the full $20 million she sought, but also interest on that sum for the eight years between the 2006 crash and the 2014 verdict.

The Supreme Court’s reversal, and its final judgment for Mazda, effectively ends the case, although Walters could petition for a rehearing.

Virginia Beach lawyer and appellate court analyst Steven Emmert said Thursday that such requests are rare and would have to come within 30 days.

He also knew of few verdicts in Virginia as high as the one initially awarded to Walters.

“There are other eight-figure judgments, some that held up and some that didn’t,” Emmert said.

The last one he could recall was in 1999, when the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a jury award of $20 million from Virginia Power to a 10-year-old boy who was burned and disfigured after he ran into an electrical substation while chasing a tennis ball.