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Hannibal v. TRW Vehicle Safety Systems Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

November 13, 2018

CHRIS HANNIBAL and LEANNA HANNIBAL, Individually and as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Krista Sue Hannibal, Deceased PLAINTIFFS
v.
TRW VEHICLE SAFETY SYSTEMS, INC. DEFENDANT

          OPINION AND ORDER

          J. LEON HOLMES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Krista Hannibal was killed when her 1997 Ford Explorer, which she was driving, left the road and rolled over in a deep ditch shortly after 5:00 p.m., on November 26, 2007. The Explorer came to rest upside down at an angle tilted toward the driver's side. Krista was partially ejected through the window on the driver-side door and her head was pinned between the top of the door frame and a rock on the ground. Her parents brought this action against TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc., which manufactured components of the seatbelt system, contending that the seatbelt system was defective and unreasonably dangerous. Their theory was that, due to a design defect, during a rollover the locking mechanism would permit enough of the webbing to unspool to allow Krista's head to get outside the window. The case was submitted on interrogatories with the first interrogatory asking whether Krista was wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident. The jury answered that interrogatory “No.”

         The plaintiffs have now filed a motion for new trial, contending that the Court erred in allowing the investigating officer, Derek McGuire, to testify that it did not appear that Krista was wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident. They also assert that the Court erred in allowing Charles Davidson, a fireman and emergency medical technician, to testify on that issue.

         Four eyewitnesses testified at trial on the issue of whether Krista was wearing her seatbelt. All of them were permitted to testify as to what they saw and what conclusions they drew based upon what they saw.

         The first witness was Josh Ramsey. Ramsey was working on a water line near the scene of the accident when it occurred. He and his co-worker, Terry White, ran to the scene immediately after the accident occurred. Ramsey looked through the passenger-side rear door. He testified as follows:

Q Okay. When you got that passenger door open or were looking through that passenger side, could you see Krista in the vehicle at that point?
A Yes, from the side.
Q Okay. Can you explain how you saw her positioned in the vehicle?
A The vehicle was - the vehicle was upside down. I believe I was looking in from the back passenger door and I could see the side of the - the side of the seat and the side of her - and her hair, and she was upside down in the driver's seat.
Q Okay. Did you see her face?
A I could only see hair and like shoulder down to the seat. Like I said, she was - she was just hanging upside down in the driver's seat.
Q Was she behind the steering wheel?
A That is correct.
Q Do you remember which way she was orientated in that seat?
A What do you mean by that?
Q When you describe her as behind the steering wheel, would that be in the same manner that someone would be behind the steering wheel of a vehicle that was not flipped upside down?
A Yes.
Q Do you know any other way that she could have been hanging upside down other than wearing a seat belt?
A I really don't know what to say here because I don't want to speculate anything. I don't see any other way for her to have been in that position if she didn't have one on, if I can say that.
Q Did you make any effort to look for a seat belt when you were looking into that vehicle?
A No, I did not.

         Page 60, line 3 through page 61, lines 1, 20-23, and page 62, lines 2-4. Document #123 at 60-62.

Q Mr. Ramsey, you don't recall seeing the seat belt, true?
A Correct.
Q You didn't see the belt on her, true?
A Correct.
Q You personally did not touch a seat belt, correct?
A No. I didn't touch anything inside the vehicle.
Q And you didn't see anybody else take the seat belt off her, correct?
A Correct. Once emergency personnel started doing their job, I didn't want to interfere and backed away.

         Page 79, lines 2-11. Document #123 at 79.

Q You could not confirm or deny that the seat belt was on or off, true?
A Correct. Page 86, lines 14-16. Document #123 at 86.

         Terry White entered the vehicle through the hatch. He crawled and placed his head between the driver-side seat and the passenger-side seat, expecting to find that the occupant was alive. When Krista did not respond, he backed out and waited for the emergency professionals to arrive. White testified:

Q Did you see anything that would have kept her in that upside-down position?
A No.
Q Do you have any explanation of how she would have still been in that position in the seat?
A I don't. I mean, I didn't - she was just in there.
Q You weren't looking for a seat belt?
A No, I wasn't.

         Page 7, line 21 through page 8, line 3. Document #121 at 7-8.

Q Next you don't remember seeing a seat belt at all, true?
A True.
Q You did not - certainly did not unfasten or unbuckle a seat belt, true?
A No, because, when I didn't get any response, I was thinking neck injury. I don't -
Q You knew better than to touch -
A Right.
Q - somebody who was injured?
A Right.
Q So true statement, did not unfasten or unbuckle the belt?
A No.
Q ...

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