Autoliv abandons its appeal of Court Order finding seatbelt defective, pays $56 million to settle 2022 Judgment
July 27, 2023
For immediate release.
MEDIA CONTACT – James E. (Jim) Butler, Jr. (email@example.com) – office 800-242-2962, cell 706-315-5018; Tedra L. Cannella (firstname.lastname@example.org) – cell 404-831-5462, 404-800-4828 office. Please copy Susie Wynn (email@example.com) on any emails, just in case we miss the email.
Today Autoliv of Japan paid $56 million to settle the Andrews v. Autoliv case which resulted in a $127 million bench verdict on January 3, 2022.1 The case was tried before Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia in October 2021. The payments were made on Thursday, July 27, 2023.
Plaintiff was represented at trial by Tedra Cannella of Cannella Snyder LLC, Jim Butler of Butler Prather, LLP; and Rory Weeks of Weeks Law LLC (all three were at the Butler firm at the time of trial). The Plaintiff’s trial Team included paralegals Cathy Huff and Beth Telgenhoff and Beth Glen of Butler Prather.
Defendant Autoliv was represented at trial by Doug Scribner, Jay Repko, and Jenny Hergenrother of Alston & Bird.
Of the $56 million, $42 million was paid to Plaintiff Jamie Andrews, whose husband Micah was killed by Autoliv’s defective seatbelt, and $14 million was paid to the State of Georgia, which post-trial made a claim to get part of the $100 million punitive damages award, ostensibly pursuant to the escheat provision of O.C.G.A. 51-12.5.1 (e)(2). Under that statute, adopted as part of the ‘tort reform’ bill in 1987, punitive damages in a products liability case are unlimited, but 75% of any judgment for punitive damages that are actually collected go to the State. In Andrews, as in other prior cases where the State asserted an interest, there was vigorous disagreement between Plaintiff Andrews’ legal team and the Georgia Attorney General’s office about whether the State had any interest at all in damages not yet collected. The State was wholly uninvolved in the case until it filed a motion to intervene in the appeal by Autoliv to the Eleventh Circuit.
The case arose from a wreck on April 12, 2013, when Micah Andrews was driving home on I-575 from his job at the Atlanta Aquarium. He swerved to avoid something in the road and ran off a steep shoulder into a group of small trees, hitting them head on. The airbag on his 2005 Mazda 3 failed to function because the electronic front sensor, which was meant to actuate the airbag, failed to send a signal and the airbag failed to deploy. The airbag is, by designation, a “supplemental restraint system.” The primary restraint system, the driver’s seatbelt, also failed. It spooled out 20 inches – so much that his face hit the steering wheel hub hard enough to fracture his skull. Mr. Andrews died at the scene.
At the time of his death, Micah Andrews was 39 years old. The lawsuit was brought by Mr. Andrews’ wife, Jamie Lee Andrews, as surviving spouse and administrator of the Estate, on behalf of herself and their minor daughter.
The case was settled during Autoliv’s appeal to the Eleventh Circuit. Autoliv filed its appeal from Judge Jones’ Judgment on November 1, 2022. On appeal, the Plaintiff’s legal team was joined by Mike Terry and Frank Lowrey of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, LLP and Autoliv’s legal team was joined by Keith Blackwell of Alston & Bird.
“We are pleased for Micah Andrews’ family to have finally won justice for Micah,” said Butler. “It took too long, but this is a great result for the Andrews family.”
“The verdict in this case and today’s resolution represents an enormous team effort,” Cannella said. “Like Ms. Andrews, every person who worked on Ms. Andrews’ case believed deeply that putting a stop to this dangerous design would save lives. Autoliv is the world’s largest manufacturer of automotive airbags and seatbelts. It is now indisputably on notice that Autoliv must not sell safety products that are unsafe.”
The verdict and judgment is believed to be the largest verdict ever obtained for a defective seatbelt against a component manufacturer.
Mazda was responsible for the airbag. Autoliv was responsible for the seatbelt. Mazda settled in 2016 on confidential terms. Autoliv persisted in the litigation, never offering more than $200,000 to settle before the verdict.
Plaintiff contended that the seatbelt was designed with excessive and unsafe “spool out” that prevented it from properly restraining occupants of the vehicle. At trial, when called for cross examination by Mr. Butler, Autoliv’s designated corporate representative David Prentkowski admitted that so much spool out was foreseeable to Autoliv and was actually foreseen in crash tests, that the spool out was avoidable, that it was foreseeable the consequences of so much spool out could be catastrophic, and that failing to prevent what was foreseeable and avoidable and could cause catastrophic results was no different than intentional misconduct.
Autoliv’s lawyers put Prentkowski back on the stand three days later, and on cross examination by Mr. Butler he was forced to admit the same things a second time.
The Court’s Final Order and Judgment took note: Autoliv’s corporate representative “twice admitted that refusing to avoid the foreseeable when opportunities exist to do so is, as a practical matter, the equivalent of intentional misconduct.” Order at 83.
Judge Jones’ Final Order and Judgment was 96 pages long and detailed the bases for his decision. The Judgment granted compensatory damages for the full value of Micah Andrews’ life in the amount of $25 million, granted compensatory damages for pain and suffering in the amount of $2 million, and imposed punitive damages against Autoliv in the amount of $100 million. The Court’s Final Order and Judgment found that Plaintiff proved with clear and convincing evidence that Autoliv’s conduct “showed that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”
The settlement leaves in place the Court’s Order finding the Autoliv seatbelt defective and finding Autoliv’s conduct demonstrated a conscious indifference to consequences.
As the Court held, public filings by Autoliv Inc. report annual sales for seatbelts of over $2.5 billion every year since 2013, and over $45 billion in seatbelt sales since 2003. At the end of 2020 Autoliv Inc. reported $8.1 billion in assets. Order at 90.
Judge Jones “apportioned” 50% of the compensatory damages to Mazda, under O.C.G.A. §51-12-33. Plaintiff Andrews filed a cross-appeal to Autoliv’s appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, in which cross appeal Plaintiff sought to reverse that apportionment, based upon the Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision in Georgia CVS Pharmacy, LLC v. Carmichael, 362 Ga. App. 59 (2021).
The Georgia Supreme Court recently declined to reverse Carmichael. Plaintiff was confident the Eleventh Circuit was bound to reverse the apportionment to Mazda based on Carmichael.
With the apportionment to Mazda, the total judgment against Autoliv for Ms. Andrews was $113,509,671.70. Because Autoliv turned down an offer to resolve the case for $9.5 million in 2015, prejudgment interest of $4,734,349.55 was added to the judgment.
The case was originally filed in Fulton County State Court in 2014. Ms. Andrews approached lawyers Greg Feagle and Bill Ballard about a potential case. They brought in the Butler firm because of its extensive success in product liability and other high-stakes litigation. The defendants removed the case to federal court.
“Jamie Andrews and her legal team are very happy this long ordeal is finally over and pleased with the results,” said Tedra Cannella.
Cannella added, “the public relies on auto component manufacturers to make safe products. This case is scary because the very thing that was supposed to keep Mr. Andrews safe was the thing that caused his death – a useless seatbelt.”
When Autoliv and Mazda removed the case to federal court the case was first assigned to former Judge William Duffey. After Mazda and Bosch settled, Duffey granted summary judgment to Autoliv. That decision was reversed on appeal by the Eleventh Circuit – just five days after oral argument. “I told Tedra her argument on appeal was so good the Court of Appeals reversed before she could get back to the office,” Butler said. Judge Duffey then retired and did not take senior status, and the case was reassigned to Judge Jones.
Because Ms. Andrews did not accept Autoliv’s offer of settlement under O.C.G.A. §9-11-68(a-d), Autoliv filed a motion to make the widow Jamie Andrews pay Autoliv’s attorneys’ fees. That motion was granted by Judge Duffey, but vacated after the Eleventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment to Autoliv.
O.C.G.A. §51-5-12.1 was passed in 1987, as part of a “tort reform” bill. “The escheat provision giving the State 75% of any collected punitive damages judgment is a real impediment to deterring wrongful conduct,” Butler said. “That was its purpose to begin with – to discourage plaintiffs from taking such cases to verdict. Ask the State how many times in the past 36 years the State has collected anything based on that statute.”
Another feature of the 1987 ‘tort reform’ bill that resulted in O.C.G.A. 51-12.5.1 is what is called the “one-bite rule.” In a products liability case, once one judgment for punitive damages is collected in Georgia for a particular product then the manufacturer is immune from any further punitive damages verdicts for that same product. The jury is not told that its verdict will be the only punitive judgment for the manufacturer’s acts. “That deal was made by one of the GTLA members then fighting the ‘tort reform’ bill – without permission or knowledge by the rest of our team,” Butler said. “Without authority from anyone he agreed to exchange those provisions for the cap on punitive damages in all non-products cases. We tried to get that taken out of the bill, but by then the die was cast, and legislative leaders would not change the result.”
The result is a windfall to the State in exchange for immunity to a manufacturer for a product that has been found to be defective, and which is still endangering Georgia citizens.
1 The actual named defendant at trial was Autoliv Japan, LTD, but as the Court found that entity was a subsidiary of the multinational corporation Autoliv, Inc. and that “Autoliv has ignored formal divisions among corporate Autoliv entities.”
Final Order and Judgment at 91. In fact, the defendant’s own corporate representative at trial was not an employee of “Autoliv Japan LTD” but of another Autoliv, Inc. subsidiary. Order at 94. The design for the seatbelt component at issue in the case came from yet another Autoliv Inc. subsidiary. Order at 92.