On June 28, 2013 a Chittenden County Vermont jury returned a $43.1 million dollar verdict in favor Dzemila Heco, a 51 year old woman who suffered a C4-C5 spinal cord injury when her 1999 Dodge Neon was struck from behind at 35 miles per hour by another car while waiting at a red light.
The damage to Ms. Heco’s car was not particularly severe and she was wearing a seat belt, but her seat collapsed backward causing her to become unrestrained, resulting in this serious injury. The verdict was returned against Johnson Controls, which designed and manufactured the seats for Chrysler. Evidence at trial showed that Johnson Controls knew that the single-sided recliner mechanism on the seat was subject to failure in impacts of this kind and that Johnson had a patent for a two- sided recliner mechanism, costing an additional $7.16, which would not have failed.
It is not unusual for a Vermont jury to return a verdict against a manufacturer in a “products liability” case like this one. What is unusual is the size of this verdict. In the past, jury verdicts in Vermont have been lower than in many parts of the country, leading both plaintiffs and defendants to assume that a Vermont jury will not award eight figure verdicts in cases involving serious injuries-like brain and spinal cord injuries. This verdict upsets that assumption and has therefore received a great deal of attention in the Vermont legal and insurance communities. It has potential impact on all claims involving life altering injuries, especially brain and spinal cord injury claims.
The damages awarded by the jury included:
By all accounts, a factor in the size of the verdict was Ms. Heco ‘s inspiring life story and strong character. She and her family lived in Bosnia before the siege of Sarajevo began in 1992. Her husband was killed in the conflict and Ms. Heco and her two sons escaped through the “Sarajevo Tunnel” and spend six harrowing months in Croatia before being able to emigrate to the United States. Ms Heco worked three jobs supporting her family and did volunteer work before the accident.