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Trial continues in case of local man suing Toyota over alleged defective seat design

The Bakersfield Californian

Aug. 20–Thomas Gutcher was driving down Highway 99 to Valencia on May 20, 2008 with his two daughters to buy one of them a new car.

He saw a nearby tractor adjacent on Highway 119 kicking up dust as it plowed the field. He slowed down and came to a stop as he entered the dust cloud and was hit from behind by another vehicle.

After the crash Gutcher attended his daughters, and called his wife as he rode in an ambulance. It wasn’t until he was at Kern Medical Center filling out paperwork that he complained of a headache, and soon after was in surgery for a massive head injury.

Gutcher emerged from a drug-induced coma with what his attorneys call a traumatic brain injury. And they say that injury was caused by the collapse of Gutcher’s seat in the 1999 Toyota Camry he was driving the day of the crash.

That seat and its alleged defectiveness is at the center of Gutcher’s $25 million lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corporation, and the trial is currently underway in Department 11 of Kern County Superior Court. Attorneys for Gutcher said his seat completely collapsed and his head swung violently backward as a result, even striking the rear seat cushion behind him.

Attorneys for Toyota are arguing that the 1999 Camry had advanced safety features that exceeded Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations. Toyota’s attorneys say it’s likely the force of the crash itself, not the seat design, caused Gutcher’s injury.

The trial began Aug. 8 and is expected to last to Sept. 12.

Dallas-based attorney Leon Russell and Bakersfield attorneys Matthew J. Faulkner, James L. Faulkner and Kathleen Ellis-Faulkner are representing Gutcher. Los Angeles-based attorneys Patrick G. Rogan and Jung S. Chon are representing Toyota with co-counsel James W. Halbrooks, Jr. and Anthony J. Parascandola.

Russell said in a recent interview that Gutcher’s two daughters in the car with him escaped with far less significant injuries. They all experienced the same crash, the only difference being their seats did not collapse as Gutcher’s did.

Russell said Gutcher’s front seat should have had some give, but by collapsing completely the back of Gutcher’s head struck the rear seat cushion directly behind him.

“It’s not good if (the seat) bends so much it sends you to the back,” Russell said in an interview Friday.

He said Gutcher suffered bleeding on the brain as a result of the rapid acceleration of his head caused by the seat collapse. A stronger seat wouldn’t have collapsed, Russell said.

The attorney said one of their experts tested other 1999 Toyota Camry seats and found they collapsed in the same manner as Gutcher’s seat. That failure violates what Russell said is one of the cardinal rules a vehicle needs to meet to be determined crash worthy: Keep the occupants in their respective spots.

Rogan said during opening arguments that Toyota and other vehicle manufacturers do extensive testing to assure as best they can that their vehicles are safely designed “for all reasonably anticipated levels of accident force.”

“The plaintiffs have accused Toyota of being negligent and having defectively designed this Camry vehicle,” Rogan said to the jury during opening arguments Aug. 8. “The evidence you will hear will show nothing is further from the truth.

“This ’99 Camry had some of the most advanced safety features of all its vehicles and with respect to the Federal Motor Safety Standards it greatly exceeded, in all identifiable categories to the extent possible, greatly exceeded the federal requirements for the various standards that exist.”

Rogan said Camry seats are designed to deflect in the case of an accident and not collapse as the plaintiffs allege. He also said there was no physical evidence that Gutcher struck his head.

What caused Gutcher’s injury was not the design of the Camry, Rogan said, but “the combination of the tremendous force of this accident,” an accident Rogan said Gutcher could have avoided.

The attorney said Gutcher saw far in advance that a plowing tractor kicked up a large amount of dust that blew across the highway but kept driving instead of pulling over and waiting for the dust to clear. Rogan also said he believes the extent of Gutcher’s impairment has been overstated, noting that Gutcher is able to drive by himself and go to work.

On Monday, jurors heard testimony from Dr. Martha Bidez, a biomechanical engineer testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs about what forces are required to hurt people in a crash, and what safety systems should are needed in order to prevent injury. Bidez said a stronger seat should have been used in the Camry.

Under cross-examination, Bidez said she has so far billed the Gutcher family’s attorneys between $50,000 to $60,000 for her work.

The trial is scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. Tuesday.


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