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Liability Ruling May Leave a Huge Dent in Auto Makers’ Wallets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Supreme Court has let stand a lower court decision that could expose auto makers to billions of dollars of claims in liability suits over alleged air bag and seat belt defects.

Previously, the auto industry routinely asserted that it could not be sued in state courts for injuries sustained by drivers or passengers who were using restraints that met federal standards.

But in a case last year involving a car imported by Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America, a state appeals court said Hyundai could be sued over a passenger’s injuries even though he was using a federally approved seat belt that met all federal safety standards.

Hyundai, the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn. and several other auto makers had asked the high court to suppress the appellate decision--a little-used process that would keep it from being cited in other cases involving automobile product liability. The high court’s refusal means the ruling now can be used by lawyers and judges in automobile product liability cases all over the country.

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If widely cited, the ruling “certainly would strengthen the case” against the car makers’ main defense in product liability suits, said UC Berkeley law professor Steven Barnett, a product liability specialist.

Officials at Hyundai and the domestic auto makers’ trade group in Washington could not be reached for comment.

But the lawyer who represented Lakewood youth Adam Ketchum in the damage suit against Hyundai said he was “elated” by the decision. “This will be a great benefit to people who have been injured because of product defects” in automobile safety restraint systems, said Laguna Niguel attorney Kevin Calcagnie.

Ketchum, who suffered severe brain injuries in an accident while riding in his parents’ Hyundai, won a $15-million judgment against the car company. But the case was reversed on other issues and sent back to trial late last year. It has since been settled out of court. Calcagnie said he could not discuss the settlement because of a confidentiality agreement.

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While cases alleging seat belt defects are rare, there have been more than 200 air bag cases in recent years.

Plaintiffs in those cases have argued that car makers should be held liable in state courts for injuries sustained while driving or riding in cars that were not equipped with air bags although the devices were available at the time.

Federal law made air bags one of three types of passive restraint systems that can be used, but the suits argue that air bags were known to provide additional protection and should have been installed.

More recently, there have been several cases in which people are seeking damages for injuries caused when air bags were inflated.

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