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Crashworthiness Case:

Brain Injuries, Confidential Settlement

 We represented a 24 year old Oregon woman who suffered from severe permanent injuries, including brain damage with neurological impairments, due to the defective seat belt restraint system and steering column of a small Japanese pickup truck.

The Crash and the Vehicle

One January morning, Jolene was driving a little Japanese pickup truck on Cornelius Pass Road near Hillsboro, Oregon.  She was wearing the seat belt provided for the driver’s seat.  She unexpectedly hit an icy area and the pickup slid off the road into a tree.  Jolene suffered terrible injuries.

Our investigation and analysis by engineering experts showed that the defendant manufacturer was negligent in designing, manufacturing, marketing, distributing, and selling the pickup truck:

(a) That did not have an adequate and crashworthy restraint system for the driver of the vehicle;

(b)That had seat belts that did not operate properly to protect the driver from serious injury and that did not meet Federal Motor Vehicle     Safety Standards;

(c) That had a steering column that was not crashworthy; and

(d) That did not have warnings of the risk, hazard, and danger of serious physical injury that foreseeably results from use of the driver’s seat belt.

The defective and unreasonably dangerous condition of the little pickup truck was a substantial factor in causing Jolene to suffer serious and painful injuries, including: multiple facial fractures, a skull fracture with compression and depression of the front wall of the skull, dural tears, leakage of cerebrospinal fluid, damage to the nerves and other soft tissues of the brain, multiple vertebral compression fractures and damage to the soft tissues of the back, and multiple contusions, lacerations, and abrasions.  The injuries required surgical procedures, including craniotomy with decompression of the depressed skull fracture, and multiple reconstructive surgeries.

What is “crashworthiness”?

It is foreseeable that cars and other vehicles will have crashes.  Because it is just a matter of time before someone’s vehicle gets in a collision, to the extent that it is technologically feasible, vehicles should reasonably designed and manufactured so that people in them can survive and be healthy after those crashes.  That’s what “crashworthy” means.  Injured people have brought lawsuits for decades to force vehicle manufacturers to implement practical designs that protect people when crashes happen.  Those lawsuits have resulted in seatbelts, air bags, collapsible steering columns, padded dashboards, padded vehicle interiors, energy absorbing bumpers, automatic braking systems, and a host of other features that we take for granted each time we get into a motor vehicle.

The human costs of a vehicle that is not crashworthy

After the crash, emergency personnel gave Jolene oxygen and IV fluids, placed her in a cervical collar, monitored her heart, and rushed her by ambulance to St. Vincent’s emergency room.  There, CT scans of her face showed that the bones were shattered and splintered, which obliterated her frontal sinuses.  In addition, her skull was fractured, creating a hole in her skull allowing outside air and other substances direct contact with her brain.  She also had internal bleeding in her left eye with blurred vision, and compression fractures in her back.

Two surgical teams rushed her into surgery.  During the next eight hours, the first team attempted to repair the skull fracture and to close the leak of cerebro-spinal fluid from her brain.  The second team tried to repair the facial fractures and reconstruct her face with titanium plates.

Jolene continued to have leakage of cerebrospinal fluid from an undetected tear in the sac that surrounds the brain that was not repaired until nearly two months later.   She was later readmitted to the hospital, where surgeons performed a bifrontal craniotomy with closure of the dural opening.

Jolene began physical therapy to attempt to improve her back and neck pain.  However, the therapy was not successful.  She continued to experience back and neck pain daily.  In addition, she has had chronic headaches, dizziness, blackouts, numbness and tingling in her legs, difficulty with her vision with decreased depth perception and difficulty coordinating her eyes.  Jolene lost the sense of smell and taste and her face is numb.

A half a year later, the bone used to repair the skull fracture became infected.  Jolene was  readmitted to the hospital, where a neurosurgeon removed the frontal bone flap.  This procedure left her brain virtually unprotected and with an obvious cosmetic defect.  She had to wear a protective helmet for the next year.

Jolene continued to experience episodes of dizziness, black-outs, and headaches which were evaluated by her neurologist.  An abnormal EEG confirmed her symptoms and the neurologist started her on Dilantin, an anti-seizure medication.  However, Jolene was unable to remain on this medication due to its side effects of increasing her headaches.

Nearly a year later, Jolene was required to undergo additional surgery with two surgical teams.  This time the surgery lasted nearly six hours.  Her doctors removed much of the metal plating in her head, performed reconstructive surgery on her nose, and placed a methylacrylate plate in her forehead. Although the plastic plate was designed to protect her brain, even mild trauma to the front of her face could cause death due to the fragile condition of her nasal region.

Years later, Jolene faced a lifetime of daily pain and limitations.  She suffered a severe head injury that caused profound physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological changes.  She suffered headaches, seizures, difficulty sleeping, memory problems, fatigue, confusion, slowed mental processing, loss of ability to concentrate, and difficulty in visual tracking.  In addition, she had numerous sinus infections because her sinus passages are now smaller due to the facial fractures, and those infections required frequent use of antibiotics and decongestants.

Jolene was never without pain after the failure of the crash protection systems.  She experienced headaches daily.  The headaches and resulting nausea frequently are so severe she had to be confined to her bed in a quiet, darkened room for several days at a time.  The prescriptions for pain control frequently did not work.

Before the crash, Jolene was an attractive, vivacious young woman.  She had been a competitive athlete, and was in excellent health.  Just before the crash, she was enthusiastic about her recent promotion at work and was looking forward to assuming additional work responsibilities.  She was also an active young mother.  Her daughter was nearly 16 months old when Jolene was injured.  Jolene had been confident, poised, efficient, and able to juggle multiple tasks and demands.  She had a sunny disposition and a positive outlook on life.

After the crash, Jolene’s life became severely limited.  On the days she was not forced to remain in her bed due to severe headaches, she could drive her daughter to school.  On a good day, she could go to the grocery store.  For years, she rarely left her home because she was embarrassed about the changes in her appearance and she tried to hide her pain and cognitive limitations.  She could not read or watch television for more than several minutes at time.  When returning to a book to resume reading, she often could not recall what she read before.

Jolene frequently could not prepare meals or play with her daughter.  The incapacitating headaches and memory problems required that her grandmother take care of both Jolene and her daughter.  Jolene was no longer able to work, fully take care of her daughter, or live independently without watchful care and assistance.

A few thoughts about Jolene’s case

As with any product liability case, Jolene’s case against the manufacturer was vigorously defended.  As one of many examples, the manufacturer was formally served six different ways, but still moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the argument that it did not have notice of the case. That motion was denied by the Court, but was just one of many fights to follow.

During litigation, the manufacturer eventually requested a mediation.  During the mediation, the case settled for a confidential amount that provided for periodic payments to Jolene.  Periodic payments are often helpful to a person struggling with a brain injury.  While they do not have the highest rate of return, they provide some predictability to the injured person, and make it more difficult for financial predators to swoop in and take advantage of them.

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