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2007 Chevrolet Tahoe Seatback Failure Results in Traumatic Brain Injury

SUPERIOR COURT FOR THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA
COUNTY OF STANISLAUS

WENDY LEIGH YATES; BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES; and GAVIN YATES, Plaintiffs,
vs.

GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION;
SEXTON CHEVROLET; RUSTY SCOTT WILLIAMS; and DOES 1 to 100, Inclusive,
Defendants.
CASE NO.: 631824
Hon. David G. VanderWall
Dept. 23
[UNLIMITED CIVIL]

FIRST AMENDED COMPLAINT FOR DAMAGES FOR:

  1. Strict Product Liability
  2. Negligent Product Liability
  3. Negligence
  4. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

DEMAND FOR JURY TRIAL

Complaint filed: September 17, 2008
Trial: None

COME NOW individual plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES, BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES, and GAVIN YATES, and for causes of action against defendants, and each of them, allege as follows.

ALLEGATIONS COMMON TO ALL CAUSES OF ACTION

  1. At all relevant times, plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES, BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES, and GAVIN YATES resided in the City of Escalon, County of San Joaquin, State of California. BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES was at all relevant times the daughter of WENDY LEIGH YATES. GAVIN YATES was at all relevant times the husband of WENDY LEIGH YATES.
  2. At all times mentioned herein, defendant GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION (hereafter "GMC") was and is a Delaware corporation with a principal place of business in Detroit, Michigan, and was qualified to do business and was doing business in the State of California.
  3. At all times mentioned herein, defendant SEXTON CHEVROLET (hereafter "SEXTON") was and is a California corporation with a principal place of business in Manteca, California.
  4. Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and based thereon allege, that defendant RUSTY SCOTT WILLIAMS (hereafter "WILLIAMS") is an individual and resident of the State of California.
  5. The true names and capacities, whether individual or otherwise of DOES 1 through 100 are unknown to plaintiffs, who therefore sues those defendants by fictitious names. When the true names and capacities of the DOE defendants are ascertained, plaintiff will seek leave of this Court to amend the complaint accordingly.
  6. Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and based thereon allege, that each defendant designated herein as a DOE defendant was responsible in some actionable manner for the events which legally caused plaintiffs' damages alleged in this complaint, either through that defendant's own negligence or through the conduct of its agents, servants, employees or representatives in some other manner, or through its capacity as a manufacturer, designer, assembler, tester, or seller of the product at issue or its component parts.
  7. Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and based thereon allege, that at all relevant times each defendant was the agent, servant, employee, representative and/or joint venturer of/with each other defendant and was acting within the course, scope and authority of such agency, service, employment, representation and/or joint venture, and that all such actions by any agent, servant, employee, representative or joint venturer were subsequently ratified by their respective principals, and the benefits thereof accepted by such principals.
  8. At all times mentioned herein, GMC, SEXTON and DOES 1 through 100, were and are engaged in the business of manufacturing, fabricating, designing, assembling, distributing, selling, inspecting, servicing, repairing, marketing, warranting, leasing, renting, retailing, wholesaling and advertising motor vehicles, including a certain 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, license plate number 5ZXS338, VIN number 1GNFC13J07R237788 (hereafter the "SUBJECT VEHICLE"), and each and every component part thereof, which defendants knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, would be used without inspection for defects in its parts, mechanisms or design, for use in the State of California and elsewhere.
  9. Defendants never issued any warnings or notifications about any dangers or safety issues existing in the SUBJECT VEHICLE, or that the SUBJECT VEHICLE was mechanically unsound or unsafe to operate, to plaintiffs prior to or at the time of the sale of the SUBJECT VEHICLE, or at any other relevant time.
  10. On or about October 18, 2007 at approximately 1:25 p.m., WENDY LEIGH YATES was a properly restrained front seat passenger in the SUBJECT VEHICLE, driven by her daughter BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES. They were traveling southbound on the off-ramp from State Route 99 to Beckwith Road, in Modesto, California. The SUBJECT VEHICLE was slowing when it was rear-ended by a 2002 Ford Explorer driven by WILLIAMS, pushing the SUBJECT VEHICLE into a second impact with a 2001 BMW X-5 (hereafter the "SUBJECT ACCIDENT"). As a result of the initial rear impact, and due to defects inherent in the SUBJECT VEHICLE, WENDY LEIGH YATES's seat back broke and collapsed rearward. This in turn caused WENDY LEIGH YATES' body to submarine out from under her seatbelt restraints, to ramp over her seat, and to strike her head in the rear compartment of the SUBJECT VEHICLE, thereby legally causing the injuries and damages alleged herein, including multiple skull fractures and permanent brain injury and seizures to WENDY LEIGH YATES, personal injury and bystander emotional distress to BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES, and loss of consortium to GAVIN YATES.
  11. FIRST CAUSE OF ACTION - STRICT PRODUCT LIABILITY

    (By Plaintiffs Wendy Leigh Yates and Gavin Yates against Defendants, GMC, SEXTON, and DOES 1 through 100, Inclusive)

  12. Plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES and GAVIN YATES re-allege and incorporate by reference each of paragraphs 1 through 10 above as though fully set forth herein.
  13. GMC, SEXTON , and DOES 1 through 100, and each of them, knew that the SUBJECT VEHICLE was to be purchased and used without inspection for defects by the users of that vehicle including plaintiffs.
  14. The SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its component parts was/were manufactured, designed, assembled, packaged, tested, fabricated, analyzed, inspected, merchandised, marketed, distributed, labeled, advertised, promoted, sold, supplied, leased, rented, repaired, adjusted, selected and used with inherent vices and defects both in design and manufacturing and by failure to warn (hereafter the "SUBJECT DEFECTS") which made the SUBJECT VEHICLE dangerous, hazardous and unsafe both for its intended use or for reasonably foreseeable misuses.
  15. These SUBJECT DEFECTS included, but were not limited to the following.
    • Defective and unsafe seats and seat backs, which failed to perform properly during the accident sequence by collapsing rearward, causing WENDY LEIGH YATES's body to submarine out from under her seatbelt restraints and to ramp rearward over her collapsed seat, which in turn forced her head to be forced back into the rear passenger compartment where she struck her head, causing severe head and brain injuries. At all times prior to their manufacture and/or sale of the SUBJECT VEHICLE and its component parts, defendants knew from prior accidents, lawsuits, warranty claims, and media publicity, and from mandatory pre-production fuel system integrity tests required by law to be conducted under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, 49 C.F.R. § 571.301 (hereafter "FMVSS 301"), that the SUBJECT VEHICLE's seat backs were too weak and were incapable of withstanding foreseeable rear-end impacts at closure speeds as low as 30 miles per hour, without collapsing rearward and potentially causing severe injuries to properly restrained occupants. Despite the availability of simple methods to correct the defects, as recommended on information and belief by Defendants' own engineers, including, but not limited to strengthened seat back frames, stronger recliners, dual recliners, and belt integrated seats, and despite the known risk of serious injury or death from head and spinal injuries or ejection from the vehicle, defendants chose to ignore the inherent safety problem, and took no action to prevent such debilitating injuries and deaths, because of concern over cost penalties, including increased production costs and reduced profits.
    • A defective and unsafe restraint system, which defendants knew from prior accidents, lawsuits, warranty claims, and media publicity, and from their own FMVSS 301 fuel system integrity testing, would fail to properly restrain an occupant such as WENDY LEIGH YATES in the event of a foreseeable rear impact when the seat back collapsed rearward, and which in this case allowed WENDY LEIGH YATES' body to submarine out from under the seat belt, ramp over the seat back, and strike her head in the rear compartment of the vehicle.
    • Inadequate and/or lack of any warnings regarding the above defects.
  16. The SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its component parts was/were unsafe for its/their intended use and reasonably foreseeable misuses by reason of the defects in its/their design and/or manufacturing and/or failure to warn by defendants, and each of them. On October 18, 2007, the SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its component parts were being used by plaintiffs as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable manner. During reasonably foreseeable crash forces, the seat back of the front passenger seat and the restraint system for the front passenger seat failed to function properly, legally resulting in plaintiffs' damages as set forth herein.
  17. As a direct and legal result of the defects in the SUBJECT VEHICLE and its component parts, WENDY LEIGH YATES has suffered severe bodily injuries resulting in past and future medical expenses, past lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, and general damages for past and future pain and suffering. GAVIN YATES has been harmed by the injury to his wife, WENDY LEIGH YATES, and seeks damages for loss of consortium. The special and general damages sought by plaintiffs exceed the minimum subject matter jurisdiction of this Court according to proof at trial.
  18. ALLEGATIONS SUPPORTING EXEMPLARY DAMAGES PRAYER ON FIRST CAUSE OF ACTION, BY PLAINTIFFS WENDY LEIGH YATES AND GAVIN YATES, AGAINST DEFENDANT GMC ONLY

  19. Plaintiffs are informed and believe and based thereon allege that GMC intentionally engaged in conduct which, with respect to the SUBJECT DEFECTS which plaintiffs allege were a legal cause of their loss, damages, injuries and harm, exposed plaintiffs and other users of the SUBJECT VEHICLE to the risk of death and/or catastrophic injuries arising from potential dangers known to GMC, in order to advance GMC's pecuniary interests. GMC thus acted with a conscious disregard for the safety of plaintiffs and other users of the SUBJECT VEHICLE, warranting an award of exemplary damages against GMC, pursuant to California Civil Code § 3294 c)(1), and the rule enunciated in Ford Motor Co. v. Home Ins. Co. (1981) 116 Cal. App.3d 374, 381-382 and PPG Industries, Inc v. Transamerica Ins. Co. (1996) 49 Cal. App.4th 1120. The facts supporting GMC's intentional conduct which exposed plaintiffs and other users of the SUBJECT VEHICLE to serious potential danger known to GMC in order to advance GMC's pecuniary interests, are on information and belief, as follows:
    • GMC has known since the early 1970's, that most of its vehicles' front seat backs, when the seats are occupied, are so weak and poorly-reinforced that they can and do collapse rearward and will strike the rear seats in a 30-35 mile per hour rear end collision. Recognizing that 30 mile per hour rear end collisions are quite commonplace on American's roads, and concerned over a rash of Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega gas tank explosions during such moderate rear end impacts, in 1976 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") enacted FMVSS 301, which required that all automakers selling automobiles in the United States conduct documented, filmed and/or videotaped rear end barrier impact crash testing of all of their vehicle platforms, to ensure proper fuel system integrity during such accidents.
    • The films of these FMVSS 301 tests reveal that virtually all of GMC's and its competitor's vehicles' front seat backs in vehicles manufactured since the FMVSS 301 tests were first required, failed and collapsed backward, causing the test dummies therein to strike the rear seats of its vehicles during these rear end impact tests, a fact of which GMC was clearly aware. On information and belief, GMC also knew from a 1979 New Car Assessment Program Test ("NCAP") conducted by NHTSA, that both front seats of its vehicles would and did fail and collapse rearward, and plaintiffs are informed and believe that GMC and/or its representatives dispatched one or more teams of safety engineers to investigate these incidents, in which it had been established that both crash test dummies occupying the vehicles' front seats had been propelled rearward striking the back seat of the vehicle.
    • In February, 1992, CBS aired a nationwide "60-Minutes" segment, of which GMC was at all times aware, which exposed this problem with GMC's and other U.S. automaker's seats, and recounted the stories of several accident victims whose seats had collapsed in moderate speed rear-end collisions leading to deaths and catastrophic head and spinal injuries. Also featured in the 60-minutes presentation was an interview with Mercedes-Benz' executives who pointed out that their vehicles seats' were not permitted to collapse during such rear-end impacts, and that such performance "would be considered as unacceptable."
    • As a result of a flood of letters from the public following the referenced 60-Minutes episode, plaintiffs are informed and believe and based thereon allege that GMC and its U.S. competitor automakers, and their predecessors, all commissioned various Seat Back Strength Task Forces comprised of numerous engineers, management and in-house attorneys in an effort to investigate the seat back failure issues as well as to look into what GMC's European competitors (including Mercedes-Benz) were doing with regard to seat back performance.
    • Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and based thereon allege that since the airing of the 1992 60 Minutes episode, and prior to its manufacture of the SUBJECT VEHICLE, GMC knew from (1) prior accidents, lawsuits, incidents, and warranty claims, (2) NHTSA hotline Vehicle Owner Questionnaires ("VOQ's"), and (3) their own FMVSS 301 testing, that the SUBJECT VEHICLE's seat backs were too weak and were incapable of withstanding foreseeable, modest, rear-end impacts at closure speeds as low as 30 miles per hour, without collapsing rearward and thereby causing death and serious catastrophic spinal and head injuries to their occupants.
    • Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and based thereon allege that, despite knowledge of all of the foregoing, GMC knowingly and purposefully designed, manufactured and installed unsafe and defective passenger seats into the SUBJECT VEHICLE which it knew would cause death and/or serious injuries to front seat occupants in foreseeable and statistically inevitable rear-end impacts. GMC thus knowingly and deliberately exposed properly-restrained occupants of its vehicles, including WENDY LEIGH YATES, to the risk of death and serious injuries resulting from such foreseeable and inevitable rear-end impacts, all for the purpose of advancing GMC's pecuniary interests, i.e., (1) avoiding the use of more costly components to enhance and improve seat back strength, (2) avoiding more expensive but amply feasible alternative designs (including, but not limited to, metallurgically stronger recliners, dual recliners, stronger seat back frames, and belt-integrated seats -- any of which would have prevented WENDY LEIGH YATES's catastrophic injuries in this case), (3) avoiding increased production costs, (4) avoiding lost profits, and (5) avoiding loss of customer confidence, loss of sales, and bad publicity, all of which would have adversely impacted GMC's sales of the SUBJECT VEHICLE make and model, as well as the many other platforms of their vehicles which use the same or similar seat back design. By knowingly and intentionally exposing WENDY LEIGH YATES and other members of the public to the risk of death or great bodily injury in order to advance its own pecuniary interests, GMC acted in conscious disregard for the safety of WENDY LEIGH YATES and other users of the SUBJECT VEHICLE. GMC's conduct was therefore "despicable," because such conduct can "kill people" as enunciated in the case of Romo v. Ford Motor Co. (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 1115, 1141, expressly affirmed on all gnds except federal Const'l issues at 113 Cal.App.4th 738 (2003).
    • GMC further acted despicably by failing to warn plaintiffs and other members of the public of the risks of death and serious injuries which could result from the defective and unsafe seats it knowingly and deliberately installed into the SUBJECT VEHICLE. GMC was aware of such risks at all times, and GMC willfully and deliberately failed to warn about such risks for the purpose of advancing its own pecuniary interests, i.e., avoidance of loss of vehicle sales and lost profits, as well as loss of customer confidence, and adverse publicity adversely impacting GMC's sales of many platforms of their vehicles using similar seat back designs. In so intentionally failing to warn plaintiffs and other members of the public of such serious risks of death and serious injuries known to GMC in order to advance its own pecuniary interests, GMC acted in conscious disregard for the safety of plaintiffs, other users of the SUBJECT VEHICLE, and the general public.
  20. Plaintiffs further allege that GMC's conduct was undertaken with the result that the SUBJECT VEHICLE's ultimate defects in its design and production were fully intended by GMC to reside therein. Plaintiffs are informed and believe and based thereon allege that GMC's decision to knowingly design and manufacture the SUBJECT VEHICLE with its defective seats and seat backs, its defective restraint system and components, and failure to warn of these defects, all in the defective and dangerous manner as alleged herein, was made by GMC's corporate management, and was the product of corporate policy, in that such major and strategic design and manufacturing decisions, by virtue of the corporate structure of GMC, could be made only at the level of corporate management, as the product of corporate policy, given the substantial capitalization requirements and risks associated with such high level design and manufacturing decisions, across an entire vehicle platform line for the SUBJECT VEHICLE, such that they were and are the product of the entire corporate management and corporate policy of GMC with respect to the conscious and willful disregard of public safety for Defendants' pecuniary gain regarding the design, manufacture, production, marketing and sale of the SUBJECT VEHICLE.
  21. As a direct and legal result of GMC's aforementioned conduct, an award of exemplary and punitive damages against GMC is proper and appropriate to punish GMC and to deter such conduct in the future.
  22. SECOND CAUSE OF ACTION - NEGLIGENT PRODUCT LIABILITY

    (By Plaintiffs Wendy Leigh Yates and Gavin Yates against Defendants GMC, SEXTON, and DOES 1 through 100 Inclusive)

  23. Plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES and GAVIN YATES re-allege and incorporate by reference each of paragraphs 1 through 19 above as if fully set forth herein.
  24. At all times mentioned, defendants and each of them, had a duty to properly manufacture, design, assemble, package, test, fabricate, analyze, inspect, merchandise, market, distribute, label, advertise, promote, sell, supply, lease, rent, warn, select, inspect and repair the SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its component parts.
  25. At all times mentioned, defendants and each of them knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known that the SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its components parts were not properly manufactured, designed, assembled, packaged, tested, fabricated, analyzed, inspected, merchandised, marketed, distributed, labeled, advertised, promoted, sold, supplied, leased, rented, repaired, selected and provided inadequate warnings for the use and purpose for which it was intended in that it was likely to injure the person who used said product, each of its component parts and/or aftermarket parts and/or installation guides.
  26. Defendants, and each of them, so negligently and carelessly, manufactured, designed, assembled, packaged, tested, fabricated, analyzed, inspected, merchandised, marketed, modified, distributed, labeled, advertised, promoted, sold, supplied, leased, rented, repaired, selected and provided inadequate warnings and provided said SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its component parts so that the same was a defective and dangerous product, unsafe for the respective use and purpose for which it was intended when used and driven as recommended or for reasonably foreseeable misuse by members of the public, including plaintiffs.
  27. As a direct and legal result of Defendants' negligence, WENDY LEIGH YATES has suffered severe bodily injuries resulting in past and future medical expenses, past lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, and general damages for past and future pain and suffering. GAVIN YATES has been harmed by the injury to his wife, WENDY LEIGH YATES, and seeks damages for loss of consortium.
  28. THIRD CAUSE OF ACTION

    NEGLIGENCE (By Plaintiffs Wendy Leigh Yates, Gavin Yates, and Brittney Sue Marie Yates AGAINST Defendants WILLIAMS and DOES 1 - 100)

  29. Plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES, GAVIN YATES, and BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES re-allege and incorporate by reference each of paragraphs 1 - 24 above as if fully set forth herein.
  30. The SUBJECT ACCIDENT was legally caused by the negligence of Defendants WILLIAMS and DOES 1 - 100, who negligently, recklessly and carelessly allowed his/their vehicle to rear-end the SUBJECT VEHICLE, thereby causing injuries and damages to each of the plaintiffs. As a result of such negligence, plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES and BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES each suffered severe bodily injuries resulting in past and future medical expenses, past lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, and general damages for past and future pain and suffering. GAVIN YATES has been harmed by the injury to his wife, WENDY LEIGH YATES, and seeks damages for loss of consortium.
  31. FOURTH CAUSE OF ACTION

    NEGLIGENT INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS (By Plaintiff Brittney Sue Marie Yates against Defendants GMC, SEXTON, WILLIAMS and DOES 1 - 100, Inclusive, and by Plaintiff Wendy Leigh Yates against Defendants WILLIAMS and DOES 1 - 100, Inclusive)

  32. Plaintiffs BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES and WENDY LEIGH YATES incorporate by reference as though fully set forth herein paragraphs 1 through 26 above.
  33. As described above, defendants GMC, SEXTON, and DOES 1 - 100 negligently caused the serious injuries to WENDY LEIGH YATES by reason of the defects inherent in the SUBJECT VEHICLE, which were caused by reason of Defendants' breach of their duties of care to properly manufacture, design, assemble, package, test, fabricate, analyze, inspect, merchandise, market, distribute, label, advertise, promote, sell, supply, lease, rent, warn, select, inspect and repair the SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its component parts and/or after market parts and/or installation guides.
  34. At all times mentioned, defendants GMC, SEXTON, and DOES 1 -100 and each of them knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known that said SUBJECT VEHICLE and each of its components parts and/or aftermarket parts and/or installation guides was not properly manufactured, designed, assembled, packaged, tested, fabricated, analyzed, inspected, merchandised, marketed, distributed, labeled, advertised, promoted, sold, supplied, leased, rented, repaired, selected and provided inadequate warnings for the use and purpose for which it was intended in that it was likely to injure the persons who used said product, each of its component parts and/or aftermarket parts and/or installation guides.
  35. As alleged above, defendants WILLIAMS and DOES 1 - 100 were negligent in their operation of a motor vehicle which collided with the SUBJECT VEHICLE at the time of the SUBJECT ACCIDENT, thereby legally causing severe and observable injuries to both WENDY LEIGH YATES and BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES, who are mother and daughter.
  36. Plaintiff BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES was present in the vehicle when it was suddenly and violently struck from behind and was aware that her mother was being seriously injured when the passenger seat back collapsed rearward and allowed plaintiff WENDY LEIGH YATES to submarine out from under the seat belt, ramp over the seat back, and strike her head in the rear compartment of the vehicle. As a direct and legal result of the Defendants' negligence, carelessness, and unlawful conduct and the defects inherent in the vehicle, plaintiff BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES suffered serious emotional distress, including but not limited to suffering, anguish, fright, horror, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry shock, humiliation, and shame, such that an ordinary, reasonable person would be unable to cope with the serious emotional distress. Conversely, plaintiff WENDY LEIGH YATES observed the injuries suffered by her daughter BRITTNEY SUE MARIE YATES, and thereby suffered serious emotional distress, including but not limited to anguish, fright, horror, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, shock, humiliation, and shame, such that an ordinary, reasonable person would be unable to cope with the serious emotional distress.

WHEREFORE, plaintiffs pray for judgment against defendants and each of them, as follows.

  1. For special damages including past and future medical expenses, loss of past and future earnings and earning capacity, according to proof at trial;
  2. For general damages, according to proof at trial, including loss of consortium;
  3. For prejudgment interest, as determined by and accrued according to applicable statutes;
  4. For costs of suit incurred herein;
  5. For exemplary damages on the first cause of action only, against defendant GMC only; and
  6. For such other and further relief the Court deems just and proper.

DATED: March 12, 2009 Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys

By:__________________________________
BRIAN D. CHASE, Esq.
SCOTT A. RITSEMA, Esq.
Attorneys for Plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES, BRITTNEY YATES, and GAVIN YATES

DEMAND FOR JURY TRIAL

Plaintiffs hereby demand a trial by jury.
DATED: March 12, 2009 Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys

By:__________________________________
BRIAN D. CHASE, Esq.
SCOTT A. RITSEMA, Esq.
Attorneys for Plaintiffs WENDY LEIGH YATES, BRITTANY YATES, and GAVIN YATES

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