$6.5-Million Car Injury Verdict Reversed

Times Legal Affairs Writer

A state Court of Appeal on Monday overturned a $6.5-million jury verdict against American Honda Motor Co., deciding that videotaped evidence failed to prove that the design of a Honda Civic caused an accident that severely injured a 17-year-old girl in 1979.

Jurors had granted $6.2 million to Marchell Leekins, now 25, and another $300,000 to her parents, Louise and William Leekins, on April 17, 1985, after an expert witness indicated that 12-inch tires (rather than safer 13-inch tires) on the 1978 model car caused it to go out of control and roll over.

Marchell, one of five Cabrillo High School basketball players returning home to Santa Maria from a Memorial Day game, suffered spinal injuries when the car swerved and overturned. The driver was killed, and the three other passengers were not injured.

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal said that the admission by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul G. Breckenridge of a videotape supporting the witness’s remarks “was clearly erroneous.” Without the videotape, the justices added, insufficient evidence existed to warrant the verdict.


“The videotaped tests formed the basis of Leekins’ claim that the tragic single car accident which rendered Marchell a quadriplegic was caused by a design defect in the Honda Civic in which she was a passenger. . . . (But) substantial similarity between the conditions of the (videotaped) tests and the accident was lacking,” wrote Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Valerie Baker, sitting as an appellate judge by special appointment. Justices Joan Dempsey Klein and Armand Arabian concurred in the opinion.

Leekins family attorney Gary Paul had told jurors that the car model with 12-inch tires could not handle sudden emergency maneuvers.

The accident occurred when another car pulled in front of the Honda as it proceeded north on a divided four-lane Santa Barbara County highway between Lompoc and Santa Maria. Paul said the car would have handled safely with 13-inch tires which were sold on the model in Japan.

John J. Costanzo, trial attorney for the Gardena-based American Honda Motor Co., had argued that the driver of the Honda had been drinking and speeding, playing tag with another car.


Leekins could attempt to appeal the appellate court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, re-try the civil case, or drop the suit.