A landmark case in America has found a body shop liable for carrying out an incorrect repair and ordered it to pay a staggering $31.5m in damages. A jury ruled 10-2 that Texan repairer John Eagle Collision Centre was 75% responsible for plaintiffs Matthew and Marcia Seebachan being trapped inside their burning 2010 Honda Fit (Jazz) following a collision. The other driver involved in the collision was blamed for the remaining 25%.
John Eagle Collision Centre panel bonded the roof instead of following Honda procedures during an earlier repair, which the jury ruled contributed to the intensity and injury of a subsequent crash.
In the deposition of body shop manager Boyce Willis, he admitted the repair had not been carried out to OEM specifications, but claimed that, “The insurance company’s going to dictate what and how we’re going to repair your car.” When asked how an insurer can trump OEM specifications, he said, ‘By not paying the bill.’
However, the Texas jury was not convinced, with one member reporting as saying that John Eagle Collision Centre hadn’t made a business decision, “so we made a business decision for them.”
The couple had dropped a related lawsuit against the insurance company concerned, State Farm, but their attorney, Todd Tracy of Tracy Law Firm, said this was purely procedural and the case will be refiled.
Regardless, the scale of the compensation will send shockwaves around the industry. Auto Body Association of Texas executive director Jill Tuggle said: “I didn’t think that they were going to award the plaintiffs with that much money.” She added that ‘jaws were just dropping’ as various multimillion-dollar awards for separate injuries were read. The final figure might even have been greater, however; the two dissenting jurors actually argued for more money to be paid to the couple. The Seebachans had asked for $42m, with the jury awarding all but $34 000 of it. The bodyshop had proposed $3.5m.
The collision occurred in 2013, when a vehicle in another lane hydroplaned into their path, resulting in a T-bone collision. Although no one in the other car was seriously hurt, the Seebachans were trapped inside the burning Fit, which they had purchased without knowledge of the previous repair.
Experts said the severity of the crash and the Seebachans’ injuries were the result of the body shops’ adhesive-bonding the Fit’s roof during an $8 500 hail repair in 2012. This contravenes Honda repair procedures, which demand a welding repair.
An expert for the plaintiff, Neil Hannemann, said: “It can be seen that no welds are present. The buckling of the cant rail is due to the lack of welding of the roof panel, which was designed to be welded on and acting as a shear panel for sharing crash loads. The Seebachan’s would likely have had only minor injuries if not been for the faulty repair. One must remember that a vehicle’s safety systems are like links in a chain. Each system must work together to ensure the other safety systems perform as designed. When the faulty structural repairs were made, the crashworthiness systems were all compromised.”
That view was supported by Mariusz Ziejewski, North Dakota State University impact biomechanical laboratory director, who said the car failed to properly distribute the energy around the couple, crushing their legs and trapping them inside the burning car.