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Texas auto body shop owes $31.5M for incorrect repair tied to fiery crash

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Business Practices | Legal | Repair Operations | Technology

A Texas jury on Monday found John Eagle Collision Center’s incorrect repair liable for much of the severity of the crash of a 2010 Honda Fit, and awarded the couple injured and trapped inside the burning vehicle $42 million in damages.

The Dallas-based shop was found responsible for 75 percent of the couple’s ordeal and the $42 million verdict the jury handed down Monday, for a total of $31.5 million in damages. The Dallas County jury attributed the other 25 percent of the blame to the other driver, according to notes taken by Tracy Law Firm spokesman Robert Riggs breaking down the verdict.

“I didn’t think that they were going to award the plaintiffs with that much money,” said Auto Body Association of Texas Executive Director Jill Tuggle, who watched closing arguments Friday and was present for the verdict Monday. “I thought that the defense made a pretty good case for planting some seed of doubt.”

The verdict was 10-2, an acceptable split under Texas law so long as the same 10 jurors agree on every part of the verdict and damages.

As various multimillion-dollar awards for separate injuries were read, “jaws were just dropping” on the plaintiff’s side of the court, Tuggle said. She called it “pretty intense.”

Interviewed after the trial, the two dissenting jurors said they thought John Eagle should have shouldered 99 percent of the responsibility, and “they wanted to offer more money,” Todd Tracy, who represented plaintiffs Matthew and Marcia Seebachan, said Monday afternoon.

“I think it was vindication for them,” Tracy said of his clients’ reaction to the verdict. He said they had always wondered why their Fit’s roof behaved as it had in the collision.

Tracy said talks were underway regarding a potential settlement (which might be more desirable to the plaintiffs than what could be a long and expensive appeals process).

“I anticipate a resolution of this thing favorably,” Tracy said, describing the possibility of John Eagle Collision and his firm working together on crash testing.

Contacted for comment about the verdict, an attorney for John Eagle Collision on Monday said a joint press release with Tracy’s Tracy Law Firm would be coming Tuesday.

According to Tracy, one of the jurors interviewed after the trial observed that John Eagle Collision had made a business decision to panel-bond the roof instead of following Honda procedures, and so “‘we made a business decision for them.'”

The Seebachans had asked for $42 million, and the jury awarded all but about $34,000 of it. (Tracy wasn’t sure what $34,000 specifically was rejected.) The body shop had proposed $3.5 million instead.

“They gave us every dollar we asked for,” Tracy said.

The Tundra’s driver was not actually named as a defendant in this lawsuit. Tracy said “he paid his proceeds a long time ago.”

Crash and repair

The Seebachans were traveling in the Fit on a 75 mph stretch of road in 2013 when a 2010 Toyota Tundra in the other lane hydroplaned into their path, leading to the Fit striking the right front quarter of the Tundra in a T-bone collision.

Two of the Tundra’s occupants were uninjured, while the other was merely bruised. The Seebachans were seriously injured and trapped inside the burning Fit, which they had purchased without knowledge of the previous repair.

Experts for the plaintiffs said in court documents that the severity of the crash and the Seebachans’ injuries were the result of the body shop adhesive-bonding the Fit’s roof during a $8,500 hail repair in 2012 for the prior owner, a State Farm policyholder.

Honda OEM repair procedures demand a shop tack-weld the front and rear corner edges of the new roof and then perform a combination of two- and three-plate spot welds and MIG plug welds. (Editor’s note: All highlighting in hyperlinked documents done by Tracy Law Firm.)

“It can be seen that no welds are present,” wrote plaintiff’s expert Neil Hannemann, who inspected the Fit. “The (Z-)buckling of the cant rail is due to the lack of welding of the roof panel, which was designed to be welded on and acting as a shear panel for sharing crash loads.”

The defense had argued the substitution of the panel bonding agent was equally acceptable and the shop actually was ahead of Honda’s own engineers in making that determination.

“The Seebachan’s would likely have had only minor injuries if not for the faulty repair,” Hannemann wrote. “One must remember that a vehicle’s safety systems are like links in a chain. Each system must work together to ensure the other safety systems perform as designed. When the faulty structural repairs were made, the crashworthiness systems were all compromised.”

The 2010 Honda Fit has a “poor” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 40 mph small-overlap crash test rating but a “good” 40 mph moderate-overlap crash-test rating.

“The 2010 Honda Fit was originally designed to provide structural and fuel system crashworthiness protection, which would prevent serious injuries to occupants in this foreseeable accident,” wrote Hannemann, an engineer who has worked on the Ford GT and Mercedes SLR. “In fact, the 2010 Honda Fit receives the highest rating from the IIHS for the moderate offset impact test, which is virtually identical in terms of crash forces to the subject accident.”

North Dakota State University Impact Biomechanical Laboratory director Mariusz Ziejewski concurred. The unibody car failed to properly distribute the energy around the couple, crushed their legs and trapped them inside the burning car, he wrote.

OEM repair procedures

The jury thought OEM procedures were “absolutely paramount,” particularly given the shop’s recognition by I-CAR, which demands shops follow OEM procedures, according to Tracy.

“They found that that was absolutely critical,” Tracy said.

The affiliation of John Eagle Collision with an OEM dealership also was “a huge deal” to the jury in showing the shop have known better, according to Tracy.

Tracy felt the case showed any shop representing itself as certified would have to follow OEM procedures or in advance tell the customer it was going to repair the car incorrectly and secure permission to do so. (Which still might not protect it from a lawsuit, another attorney has observed.)


Find out about shop liability during Repairer Driven Education

Learn what failing to follow OEM repair procedures could mean for your shop in court Nov. 2 at the OEM Collision Repair Technology Summit during the SEMA Show in Las Vegas. Experts including Tracy will present “The Hidden Dangers of Vehicle Technology, Improper Repair Methodology and Your Liabilities.”  Space will be limited; early registration is encouraged. The session is part of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists Repairer Driven Education Series Oct. 30-Nov. 3. Register here for individual courses or here for the series pass package deal.


And if a shop doesn’t get certified by I-CAR, “we get them for just general incompetence,” Tracy predicted.

“They can’t win for losing,” he said.

Tuggle, who was present when the plaintiffs interviewed the jury in the hallway after the trial, said jurors felt an OEM “recommended procedure” still meant the the shop must fix the vehicle that way or “they assume full liability.”

“I don’t think the jury realized .. how big of a statement that was,” she said. Collision repair trade groups and I-CAR have all repeatedly stressed that OEM repair procedures are the standard — but still face resistance from insurers and other shops who treat them as merely suggestions.

“It’s interesting that there’s so much interpretation” in the collision repair field, Tuggle said, but “in the eyes of a consumer,” OEM recommendations are indeed requirements.

“We’ve got to take the word recommendation more seriously,” Tuggle said.

Meeting the jurors, plaintiffs

Tuggle said the jury was interested in justice for the Seebachans, not with trying to fix the collision repair industry. But she said she introduced herself, said repairers were watching the case closely, and “‘this will have a big impact on our industry.'”

“They thanked me,” Tuggle said. She said she got the impression her comments helped them feel like “‘I did the right thing'” with the verdict.

Tuggle called the case a tricky one for her as a trade group director. She hates to see a shop sued, but repairers seemed “mostly positive with the verdict today,” she said.

Shops can cite Seebachan v. John Eagle Collision to an insurer refusing to pay for the work to be done correctly and say, “‘If I don’t, this could happen to me,'” she said.

In addition, seeing Matthew Seebachan in the courtroom “personifies the impact that we can have on people,” she said. Based on the jury’s damages, he endured and will experience the most pain and suffering,

She said she told Seebachan “our industry has used this for a learning experience” and “everyone’s listening now.” He and Marcia Seebachan both thanked her.

Images:

Matthew and Marcia Seebachan were seriously injured after their 2010 Honda Fit collided with a hydroplaning 2010 Toyota Tundra. (Provided by Tracy Law Firm via PRNewsFoto)

This graphic from the Tracy Law Firm compares where the original welds on a Honda Fit would be compared to the alleged absent welds on the Seebachans’ 2010 Fit. (Provided by Tracy Law Firm)

Ford GT engineer and plaintiff consultant Neil Hannemann wrote that in his expert opinion, the failure of the roof of the Seebachans’ 2010 Honda Fit during a crash compromised the overall structure and collision energy management of the vehicle — contributing to the Seebachans being trapped inside and the subsequent fire. (Neil Hannemann report; provided by Tracy Law Firm)

This 2010 Honda Fit burned following a collision with a hydroplaning 2010 Toyota Tundra. (Provided by Tracy Law Firm via PRNewsFoto)

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