Mobile, Ala. – On June 23, 2011, after five years of litigation and two appeals to the Alabama Supreme Court, a Mobile County, Alabama jury returned a $40 million wrongful death verdict against Kia Motors of America, Inc., Kia Motors Corporation, and DBI/Celltrion.
The case involved the A97 seatbelt buckle in model years 1995 through 2000 Kia Sephia and Sportage vehicles. The seatbelt buckles had a safety defect which caused them to be susceptible to “false latching” so that the user thinks they are properly belted when in reality they are not. In an accident, the false latch condition can allow the buckle to unlatch and substantially increase the risk of serious injury or death.
In 2002, the U.S. Government inquired about the problem, and in late December 2002 Kia issued a safety defect recall, but only for model years 1995 through 1998 vehicles. The model year 1999 and 2000 cars were not recalled, even though they had the same seatbelt buckle with the same safety defect as the cars that were recalled. The 2002 recall resulted in 189,000 cars being recalled, but 251,000 cars with the same defective buckle were not recalled and the owners of those cars were not notified of the safety defect.
Later, in April 2004, the U.S. Government inquired as to the scope of the recall, and why 1999 and 2000 model year cars had not been included in the recall. The government also asked that Kia deliver more than a dozen of the seatbelt buckles for testing to be conducted by the U.S. Government. Kia did not deliver the buckles for testing, and instead advised the government in June 2004 that it would expand the recall in August 2004 to include model year 1999 and 2000 cars.
Tiffany Stabler turned sixteen on May 6, 2004. Her father purchased a used 1999 Kia Sephia, as a gift for his daughter’s birthday. Before giving it to her, he had the car serviced at the local Kia dealership, had all recall work done, he changed the tires and did all maintenance needed to make the vehicle safe. He had no idea that the car had defective seatbelts in it. And, although Kia corporate officials knew there was a safety defect, they had not issued a recall of the seatbelt buckles in this model year car. Therefore, the original defective seatbelt buckles remained in the vehicle, even after it was inspected and serviced by the Kia dealership. On July 4, 2004, Tiffany was driving the Kia and wearing her seatbelt. She lost control of the car, and it crashed. During the accident her seatbelt buckle failed, Tiffany was ejected from the vehicle and died from her injuries.
“Tiffany’s father would never have given his little girl that car if he thought it was unsafe. While the jury’s verdict does not change the fact that Tiffany’s death could have been and should have been prevented, hopefully it will result in a change in business practices so that when a product manufacturer knows that its product has a safety defect, it will make full and complete disclosure and promptly recall all of the defective products and not just some of them,” said Skip Finkbohner, who tried the case with Toby Brown, Robert Mitchell and David Wirtes of Cunningham Bounds, LLC.