A Baltimore County jury has ordered Nissan to pay $4 million to the widow of a Carroll County man who died in a 1994 crash, after deciding that the steering column on the man's pickup truck -- which killed him on impact -- was designed defectively.
The verdict, reached Thursday after a three-week trial, prompted a California-based Nissan lawyer to call the case "a rank example junk science" yesterday.
Nicholas Wittner, assistant general counsel for Nissan North America, said the automaker will ask Baltimore County Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels to throw out the jury verdict and find that the company was not at fault.
He said the suit is the first of its kind against Nissan.
The design of the steering column "far exceeded federal auto-safety standards," said Wittner. He said "virtually every vehicle in the world uses this design," which he called "energy-absorbing."
The suit was brought by Judith A. Nave, the widow of Donald A. Nave, 51, and her sons, Bryan and Christopher Nave. Donald Nave died March 25, 1994, when his 1989 Nissan pickup truck collided with a tractor-trailer on Route 27 near Braddock Road.
Brooks Leahy, lawyer for the Nave family, said he presented evidence that the steering column was improperly designed because it didn't collapse on impact during the accident. "If it would have collapsed appropriately, the hub of the [steering] wheel column was supposed to compress and telescope down. It didn't compress at all," Leahy said.
The steering wheel severed Donald Nave's aorta, killing him immediately, said Leahy, who tried the case with law partner, Kenneth Williams. Leahy called Wittner's "junk science" claim "a total misunderstanding."
"This was a straightforward case involving engineering" that showed the design flaw, he said, noting that he brought in two engineers who testified about the deficiencies in the steering column.
He said he could find no other case against an automobile manufacturer that questioned the steering-column design.
Judith Nave could not be reached for comment yesterday.
After the verdict, Nissan's corporate headquarters in Carson, Calif., released a statement denying blame.
"The fatal injuries resulted [from] driver error, failure to wear a seat belt and an extraordinarily severe collision with a tractor-trailer," said Debra Sanchez Fair, a Nissan spokeswoman.
The victim's lawyer said, "We don't know if he was wearing a seat belt" because an unidentified person came upon the accident and might have unbuckled the belt in an attempt to dislodge Mr. Nave.
Nissan brought in two engineers who testified that the Nissan steering-column design was "state of the art" and easily surpassed car-safety standards.
One engineer, who reconstructed the crash, found that Donald Nave's death was caused by the "severe crash."
Nissan's assistant general counsel also criticized the case presented by Nave's lawyer, saying that one of the experts brought in by Leahy offered an alternative steering-column design that had never been tested and "would not have passed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards."