Local News

Monday, Sep 09 2013 05:54 PM

Lawsuit against Toyota regarding seat safety goes to the jury

BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Thomas Gutcher isn't the same man he was before his 1999 Toyota Camry was violently rear-ended in a dust storm on Highway 99 on May 20, 2008.

There's no argument from anyone that Gutcher suffered injuries in the crash. The question -- one worth $25 million in a lawsuit Gutcher's family has filed against Toyota Motor Corp. -- is whether the seat design of the car Gutcher was driving was a "substantial factor" in causing his injuries.

Deliberations in Department 11 of Kern County Superior Court are scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

Dallas-based attorney Leon Russell, one of the Gutcher family's attorneys, said in closing arguments Monday that the seat design bears the brunt of the blame for Gutcher's injuries because the seat collapsed when Gutcher, 55, was rear-ended, rapidly throwing his head backward. Yes, Russell said, there was a dust storm, and yes, another motorist struck Gutcher, but if his seat had withstood the impact without completely collapsing Gutcher would not have suffered what Russell called "traumatic brain injury."

Russell said saying the dust storm or the other motorist was responsible for Gutcher's injuries is like blaming the iceberg for the fatalities on the Titanic when it was the paucity of lifeboats that led to the huge death toll.

"In Mr. Gutcher's case, his lifeboat was his seat," Russell said.

James W. Halbrooks, Jr., one of Toyota's attorneys, countered in his closing argument, that the 1999 Camry's seats far surpassed Federal Motor Safety Standards and underwent rigorous testing. Halbrooks played video of a rear impact crash that showed the seat did not collapse even when hit at speeds of more than 30 mph.

Gutcher's Camry was struck at speeds of between 40 to 49 mph. Halbrooks called it a "very, very severe" accident.

"It's Toyota's position that the Camry saved his life, as well as the lives of his daughters" who were in the car, Halbrooks said.

The attorney noted that experts for both sides had been brought in during the five-week trial and, in response to Russell earlier telling the jury that one of Toyota's experts was paid $225,000 for his services, pointed out that one of the plaintiff's experts was paid $700 an hour. Halbrooks said all the experts were compensated for their testimony; what matters is whether they proved their point, and it's Halbrooks contention that the plaintiffs' experts didn't meet the burden of showing the seat design caused Gutcher's injuries.

"We don't know how Mr. Gutcher got this injury," Halbrooks said.

Gutcher was driving with his two daughters on Highway 99 to Valencia 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.

Russell said Gutcher's speech patterns have changed, and described him as childlike. The attorney said Gutcher forgets things and suffers from Alzheimer's-like dementia that will slowly take away his personality.

"Eventually it's going to take from Tom all that he ever was, and all that he would have been," Russell said.

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