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A good seatbelt is supposed to protect drivers and passengers in an automobile accident, helping to secure them to the seat so they are less likely to suffer injuries. Unfortunately, seat belts don’t always work as they should.

That was the case for Carlos Martinez, a 57-year-old man who was driving his Honda Acura Integra to work in 2010. One of his tires blew out, he lost control of the vehicle, and the car rolled over. Instead of holding him in his seat, the seatbelt allowed Martinez to hit his head on the roof of the vehicle as it rolled over. The injuries left him permanently paralyzed.

Martinez filed a personal injury lawsuit against Honda, and in 2014, a Philadelphia jury awarded him $55.3 million in damages. Honda appealed all the way to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, but in April 2017, that court affirmed the record-setting award.

Seat Belts Inadequate in SUV Rollovers

Martinez filed his original case in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, alleging that his injuries were so severe because the seat belt failed to keep him securely in his seat. He alleged that the product was defective, as a properly working seat belt would have kept him from hitting his head. He also claimed that Honda was aware of the defect, but failed to take action to correct it.

Indeed, Honda had discovered during a 1992 rollover test on the Integra that a driver wearing his seat belt would strike his head on the roof. Yet they took no action to protect drivers from this hazard.

In a 2004 report by consumer advocate group Public Citizen, the authors noted “serious inadequacies in current belt design and performance in rollover crashes,” adding that “safety belts are tragically ineffective in many rollover crashes.”

The group quoted a federal study that indicated 22,000 people who were wearing a seat belt still died in rollover crashes between 1992 and 2002, and criticized automakers for not doing more to address the risks of rollover crashes, particularly in rollover-prone SUVs and pickup trucks.

Jury Agrees that Honda Seat Belt Was Defectively Designed

Martinez claimed that Honda was liable for his injuries because they didn’t take steps to increase seat belt efficiency in rollover accidents, and the original jury agreed with him. They found that the belt was defectively designed, and awarded the plaintiff $55 million total, of which $25 million was for noneconomic damages, $14.6 million for future medical expenses, and about $720,000 for lost wages, past and future. They also awarded his wife $15 million for loss of consortium.

Honda appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, claiming that the trial court should have allowed them to present evidence showing the Integra complied with federal and industry standards, but that court rejected their argument, and determined the verdict should stand.

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