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Thursday, Sep 12 2013 02:32 PM

Jury finds in favor of Toyota, awards no money to man injured in 2008 crash

BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

A Kern County jury Thursday ruled in favor of Toyota Motor Corp. and awarded no money to the family of a Bakersfield man whose attorneys say suffered brain trauma in a May 2008 crash when the seat of his 1999 Camry collapsed.

The verdict was pronounced at 11:15 a.m. in Department 11 of Kern County Superior Court, ending a five-week trial in which the attorneys for Thomas Gutcher were asking for a $25 million judgment.

"We are gratified the jury agrees that this unfortunate accident was not the result of a design defect in the 1999 Camry," Toyota spokeswoman Carly Schaffner said in an email. "We sympathize with anyone injured in one of our vehicles and are committed to providing our customers with safe and reliable transportation."

Matthew J. Faulkner, one of the Gutcher family's attorneys, said he and the other attorneys, including Dallas-based Leon Russell, need to meet with the family before discussing any future actions.

"We continue to believe that these seats are dangerous and pose a threat to the people riding in them," Faulkner said. "Right now our duty is to our client and his family."

Plaintiffs' attorneys argued that Gutcher would not have suffered brain trauma had his seat not completely collapsed after his Camry was rear-ended in a dust storm. While there should be some give to a seat, attorneys said the rapid and complete collapse of Gutcher's seat sent his head back so quickly he suffered bleeding on the brain.

A stronger chair would have prevented the injury, they argued.

Toyota's attorneys, including Pat Rogan and James W. Halbrooks, Jr., said the 1999 Camry's seats surpassed Federal Motor Safety Standards and were equipped with advanced safety features. They argued the force of the crash itself, not the car's seat design, caused Gutcher's injuries.

Halbrooks said during closing arguments that Gutcher's Camry was hit at a speed between 40 to 49 mph. He called it a "very, very severe" accident and said the Camry saved Gutcher's life.

Family and friends testified that Gutcher's speech patterns have changed, and they described him as childlike. They said his job productivity has plummeted and a co-worker has been handling the bulk of what used to be Gutcher's responsibilities.

Russell said Gutcher forgets things and suffers from Alzheimer's-like dementia.

Gutcher, 55, was driving on Highway 99 to Valencia with his two daughters on May 20, 2008 to buy one of the girls a new car when he saw a tractor next to the highway kicking up dust as it plowed a field. The dust cloud blew across the highway and Gutcher slowed and then came to a stop as he entered the cloud, where he had zero visibility.

Another motorist slammed into the back of Gutcher's Camry. Afterward, he tended to his daughters and called his wife as he rode in an ambulance. It was while he was filling out paperwork at Kern Medical Center that he began complaining of a headache, and a short while after was screaming in pain and taken into surgery.

Gutcher came out of a drug-induced coma suffering brain trauma, his attorneys say.

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