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Jury says Toyota must pay reality TV star $12 million for crash injury

A Monterey County Superior Court jury ordered Toyota Motor Corp. to pay $12.5 million to a former high school dancer turned reality television star in connection with a wreck that paralyzed her.

The jury found that the design of the middle seat belt in the rear row of a Toyota 4Runner was responsible for injuries that made her a paraplegic.

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For the record

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Oct. 21, 11:34 a.m.: A shareline in an earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that a 1976 Toyota 4Runner was involved in the crash that paralyzed Chelsie Hill. It was a 1996 Toyota 4Runner.

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In a four-week trial that concluded Friday, attorneys for Chelsie Hill convinced jurors that she was the only occupant severely injured because her seat was in the sole position that had only a lap belt and no shoulder belt. Hill’s body was almost cut in half by the lap belt when the Toyota’s driver lost control and hit a tree.

After the crash, Hill joined the cast of the Sundance Channel reality television series “Push Girls,” about the lives of young paralyzed women.

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During the trial, Dr. Robert Lieberson, the neurosurgeon who treated Hill, testified that her injuries were so bad that her body “was held together by skin.” He initially thought she would die in the emergency room, he said.

Vincent Galvin Jr., an auto product liability attorney representing Toyota, argued that Hill’s injuries resulted from the extreme severity of the crash, along with an improperly adjusted seat belt, instead of a design defect in the 1996 4Runner sport utility vehicle.

Hill “was indifferent to safety that night because she didn’t have the belt on properly,” Galvin argued. 

Hill, paralyzed from the waist down, was 17 when the crash occurred in 2010. A Pacific Grove High School senior at the time, Hill and three other passengers were in the Toyota driven by Aaron Corn, who was convicted of driving under the influence. He was sentenced to a seven-year term in 2011 and released after three years.

Three of the four other occupants in the 30 mph crash were wearing lap-shoulder belts, while the fourth passenger was in the right rear seat and not wearing a safety belt, according to Hill’s attorney, Robert Rosenthal. The four other occupants suffered relatively minor injuries, he said.

Hill’s paralysis would have been prevented by a lap-shoulder belt in the middle rear seat, he said. Toyota had known this at the time it designed the 1996 4Runner but chose instead to equip its rear center seat with a lap-only belt, Rosenthal argued during the trail.

“Toyota had the technology, and chose not to use it, putting the least safe and least expensive restraint system in that seat.” he said.

A 2005 federal safety regulation required that all new cars come equipped with rear center seat lap-shoulder belts.

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“Toyota and other manufacturers have known for decades that lap-only belts are needlessly dangerous, they have failed to recall or warn about those existing older vehicles still on the road, equipped with lap belts,” Rosenthal said. “These older vehicles are ticking time bombs being driven by young drivers and young families, the very people most likely to put someone in that rear center seat.”

Toyota has not said whether it will appeal the verdict.

“We sympathize with Ms. Hill and anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles,” said Carly Schaffner, a spokeswoman for the automaker. “While we respect the jury’s time and consideration, we remain confident that Ms. Hill’s injuries were not the result of a defect in the 1996 Toyota 4Runner. We will carefully study the record.”

Since her injury, Hill has formed a wheelchair dance team and the Walk and Roll Foundation to raise awareness of spinal cord injuries.

The Hill verdict is the latest in a series of safety-related judgments and settlements involving Toyota.

Last year, an Oklahoma City jury found that faulty electronic systems in a Camry sedan caused it to accelerate out of control and crash, killing one woman and injuring another. The jury ordered Toyota to pay $1.5 million in compensatory damages to the driver of the vehicle, Jean Bookout, and an additional $1.5 million to the family of Barbara Schwarz, who was killed in the crash.

Toyota settled the case before the jury ruled on punitive damages.

Earlier this year, Toyota reached an agreement with federal prosecutors to pay a record a $1.2-billion fine to settle a four-year federal criminal investigation into whether the automaker properly reported safety complaints about sudden acceleration of its vehicles.

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Toyota was formally charged with one count of wire fraud, but if it abides by the settlement terms, the Justice Department will defer prosecution for three years and then seek to dismiss the charge. The case focused on reports of floor mats jamming gas pedals and of gas pedals getting stuck on their own.

As part of the agreement, the Justice Department appointed David Kelley, a former U.S. attorney, to serve as the independent safety monitor at U.S. operations of Toyota.

Follow me on Twitter (@LATimesJerry), Facebook and Google+.


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