By Harry Stoffer
Automotive News / July 05, 2004
WASHINGTON – DaimlerChrysler AG will have to try to persuade an Oklahoma jury that there is nothing wrong with passenger airbags in about a million 1996-97 minivans built by the former Chrysler Corp.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week denied the automaker’s request to block a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma by minivan owners who contend the airbags are unsafe.
Without comment, the high court permitted decisions by Oklahoma courts to stand. Those courts had ruled that plaintiffs from across the United States could have their claims against DaimlerChrysler heard in Oklahoma.
The case has attracted the attention of businesses and interest groups that want to curb class-action suits. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a brief on DaimlerChrysler’s behalf.
Lawyer Anthony Majestro says the Supreme Court’s action likely will reverse a trend against allowing plaintiffs from several states to sue under one state’s law. Majestro, of Charleston, W.Va., is a partner in one of about 10 law firms that represent groups of minivan owners in the Chrysler case.
A federal appeals court ruling in 2002 began that trend when it limited lawsuits against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. Those cases followed a notorious series of tire failures and vehicle rollovers, first made public in 2000.
Last week’s Supreme Court decision doesn’t necessarily invite a flood of class-action lawsuits, Majestro says. There may be more nationwide cases filed in single states and fewer cases brought in multiple locations, he predicts.
Some owners of the minivans at issue in the case contend that the front passenger airbags deploy too forcefully. They say the bags pose a risk to children and small adults who use the front passenger seat.
They say DaimlerChrysler should pay as much as $500 million to replace the airbags.
The plaintiffs say they represent the interests of all owners of the vehicles. The affected models are the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Grand Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country.
Another bag available
DaimlerChrysler said in a statement that none of the plaintiffs has suffered injury or property damage. It also notes that the airbags met all federal safety standards when they were built.
But Majestro says that when airbags in the affected vehicles deploy, the factory-authorized replacement bag on the passenger side is less powerful.
The U.S. Senate is close to voting on a controversial bill that would force more class-action suits into federal courts, away from supposedly more generous state courts.