Michael S. Morgenstern is a good attorney. He must be. He recently persuaded a Baltimore jury to award $59.7 million to a client, Prashant Kumar, who lost his legs in an automobile crash.
Kumar was a front-seat passenger in a subcompact Toyota Tercel. He was wearing a seat belt. But he was riding with his seat in a reclined position, against the written advice contained in the Toyota owner's manual.
The same advice can be found in most vehicle owners' manuals. The reason is simple. Seat belts are designed to restrain vehicle occupants in upright positions. They can injure or kill reclining occupants.
Reclining front-seat passengers tend to slide toward the impact of a frontal crash. Their legs can be mangled, which is what happened to Kumar. They can suffer severe internal injuries. That's because the weight of a sliding body converts the lap-belt portion of the seat belt from a restraining device to a vicious torso noose.
Some reclining occupants have been killed by seat belt shoulder harnesses when their necks get caught in the harness. They are hanged.
The owners' manuals aren't nearly as graphic in describing what can happen to you if you use seat belts improperly. But they are pretty clear. You can be killed, or seriously injured.
That is what Toyota's attorneys told the Baltimore jury. But the jurors didn't buy it. They agreed with Morgenstern and Kumar. No one reads owners' manuals, the jurors said.
"Certainly," Morgenstern said in an interview, "you can't expect a passenger to have read the owner's manual. What is a guy like Kumar supposed to do? Someone offers him a ride. Is he supposed to say, 'Excuse me, can I first read your owner's manual?' " Morgenstern is a nice man. But he angered me with this comment. Ridiculous, I thought. Common sense should tell people that they should not ride around in cars or trucks with the seat backs reclined and belts attached. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? Aren't people, especially adults, responsible for anything?
Morgenstern listened to my outrage. He's heard all of this before.
"Tell you what," he said. "Why don't you take a little informal poll to get an idea of how many people share your view of 'common sense?' "
I did. The results? Warren-0; Morgenstern-15. I was gumsmacked, which is a delightful word I picked up from my British friends. It means "shocked, stunned, appalled."
Among the most interesting responses I got to my poll was this one: "If it's unsafe to ride with seatbacks reclined, why do car companies make seats that can recline?
The auto industry's answer is: "Consumers want it that way." So, the industry makes them that way and puts a warning in its owners' manuals.
Morgenstern's solution to this problem is to add another boldly printed, boldly colored warning label to those already found in passenger vehicles. There are air bag warning labels, rollover warning labels, navigation system warnings (Do not look at screen while vehicle is in motion), tire inflation memos.
Morgenstern's proposed seatback warning would read: "WARNING: Death or serious injury can occur. Seatback UP! When vehicle is in motion. Seat belt may NOT restrain properly when seat is reclined."
Morgenstern and Kumar have offered to cut the jury award in half, if Toyota puts the suggested seatback warning stickers in its vehicles. If Toyota agrees to that proposal, other automakers will follow, Morgenstern reasons.
Toyota has yet to respond. The company is considering an appeal of the Baltimore verdict.
Should we add another warning label to cars and trucks? How many warning labels are enough?
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