By Rena Havner Philips, Press-Register
Mobile, Ala. -- Parents of a Mobile County teenager who was killed in a car accident in 2004 received a $40 million wrongful death judgment this week against Kia Motors and the makers of a seatbelt buckle.
Tiffany Stabler was ejected from her car on Ben Hamilton Road in west Mobile on July 4 that year. Witnesses for the plaintiffs said that she was wearing her seatbelt, while officials with Kia maintained that she was not.
The Theodore High student was driving a 1999 Kia Sephia that her father had bought for her 16th birthday, just two months prior. She lost control of the car, which struck a sign and overturned.
According to testimony, Kia officials knew that seatbelts in the 1999 model vehicles were faulty, but did not include them in a recall of 1995-1998 vehicles.
“It was just a completely preventable, completely avoidable situation,” said Skip Finkbohner, a lawyer with the Cunningham Bounds firm of Mobile, who represented Stabler’s family.
“I’m satisfied that the court system has done what was within its ability to do,” Finkbohner said, “but I feel bad for the family. Kia should have recalled all of the vehicles, not just some of them, particularly because the defect was in a safety device. It’s not like it was a cigarette lighter or a radio. This is the single most important safety device in the car.”
An emailed statement provided by Kia said: “Kia Motors America is disappointed with the findings by the jury. While this was certainly a tragic event, our position remains that the driver of the vehicle was not wearing a seat belt. We will petition the court to set aside this verdict.”
According to Finkbohner, Kia was aware that Sephias and Sportages made in 1999 and 2000 had the same faulty seatbelt buckles as the vehicles it recalled in December 2002. The company did not recall the 1999 and 2000 models until August 2004.
“People were riding around in those cars that year and a half, and that’s what happened to my clients’ daughter,” Finkbohner said. “My client got the car, put tires on it, made sure it was safe for his daughter and gave it to her for her birthday.”
Stabler was the daughter of Randy Vise and Tonya Leytham.
A Mobile County jury began hearing testimony in the lawsuit in Circuit Court Judge Charles Graddick’s courtroom on June 13 and entered the $40 million judgment against Kia Motors Corp., Kia Motors America, and Celltrion DBI Inc. on Thursday night.