Jury Finds No Defect and No Negligence in Product Liability Case Against Kia Motors Corporation


FORT MYERS, FLORIDA: After a three week trial, a Lee County, Florida jury returned a unanimous defense verdict on December 21, 2010 in Duarte v. Kia Motors Corporation, Case No. 08-CA-026481 (20th Florida Judicial Circuit), an automotive products liability case defended by Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell Tampa Partner, Brian Baggot, along with David R. Kelly and Scott B. Paxton of Bowman and Brooke, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell attorneys Anna Upton (from the firm's Tallahassee office), and Michael Forte (from the Tampa office) also provided key litigation support. Susan McClugage was the RKC trial paralegal. 

The car accident occurred on Mother's Day in 2008 as plaintiff, Karina Duarte was driving her 2005 Kia Spectra on State Road 78 to her parents’ house in Moore Haven, Florida. Ms. Duarte's two sons, Joshua Artavia (5 years old) and Christian Artavia (8 years old) were rear seat passengers. Ms Duarte lost control of the vehicle and departed the roadway at highway speed. During her off- road attempt to regain control, Ms. Duarte’s steering resulted in the vehicle sliding passenger side leading into an embankment, vaulting into a guardrail, and overturning. After the accident, first responders found Joshua pinned between the interior vehicle roof and the top of the rear seat. Tragically, Joshua died due to positional asphyxia. At trial, Ms. Duarte alleged the vehicle was not crashworthy. She asserted the roof was defectively designed, allowing it to buckle into the rear occupant seating space. She asked the jury to award $14.5 million in damages. 

Ms. Duarte, individually and on behalf of her surviving son and the Estate of Joshua Artavia, brought a Wrongful Death lawsuit against Kia for negligence-based and strict products liability as well as negligent infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiffs’ accident reconstruction expert testified there were no major roof-to-ground impacts in this crash to explain the amount of roof damage experienced by the vehicle. Plaintiffs’ roof expert asserted that the design of the roof was defective in that it lacked reinforcement at the roof rail over the rear passenger compartment, permitting it to buckle under concentrated loading. 

Kia denied the allegations and proffered developmental testing which demonstrated the vehicle’s roof had nearly double the strength required by federal safety standards. Kia’s litigation testing showed the roof was even stronger over the rear seats and that overall, the roof could withstand more than 18,500 lbs. of load. Kia’s accident reconstruction expert testified that the vehicle hit the guardrail head-on, pitched forward, overturned end-over-end, and slammed down violently onto its roof. Kia’s roof expert testified that the extent of roof deformation resulted from the high velocity of the vehicle at the start the accident and the magnitude of the subsequent roof impact.    

The defense also presented evidence showing that Joshua Artavia was not seat belted when the crash began. This allowed him to be thrown within the vehicle such that he could be entrapped between the deforming roof and the top of the rear seatback when the vehicle struck the ground, inverted. The defense also argued that as an unbelted occupant, Joshua Artavia would have sustained fatal injuries even without the roof deformation because he would have been ejected into the path of the vehicle. 

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