Case details

Defense: Seat design did not cause plaintiff’s brain injury





Result type

Not present

brain, brain injury, cognition, mental, psychological, subdural hematoma, traumatic brain injury
On May 20, 2008, plaintiff Thomas Gutcher, 55, a geologist, was driving his 1999 Toyota Camry on U.S. Highway 99 on his way to Valencia to buy one of his two daughters, who were with him, a new vehicle. When they were just south of Bakersfield, a tractor working on a field next to the highway caused a cloud of dust to form and blow across the freeway, obscuring visibility. As a result, Gutcher slowed and then came to a stop behind another vehicle, as he had zero visibility when he entered the cloud. Gutcher’s vehicle was subsequently rear-ended by a vehicle operated by Hildeberto Ruiz Hernandez. The force of the impact caused Gutcher’s seat to collapse rearward as his vehicle then rear-ended the vehicle in front of him, while also becoming subject to a sideswipe accident. Afterwards, Gutcher saw to his daughters and called his wife as he rode in an ambulance. He then began complaining of a headache while he was filling out paperwork at Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield. A short while later, he began to scream in pain and was taken into surgery. Gutcher was ultimately placed in a drug-induced coma, but when he brought out of the coma, it was determined that he had suffered brain trauma. Thomas Gutcher, as well as his wife, Linda Gutcher, and his daughters, Laura and Sarah Gutcher, sued the manufacturers of Mr. Gutcher’s vehicle, Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp.; the owner of the field, Pinheiro Family, LP; the company contracted to disc the field, whereby the turned soil and sod from plowing is broken up, Doug Kaiser Farms; the owner of Doug Kaiser Farms, Douglas Kaiser; and the driver of the vehicle that struck Mr. Gutcher’s vehicle, Hernandez. The Gutchers also sued Ludwig Emil Hopapp, Jose Antonio Saucedo, Luis Alonzo Ramirez, McKelvey Trucking Co., McKelvey Truck Leasing Co., MTC Leasing, LLC, and Gless Ranch Inc. The Gutchers ultimately settled with or dismissed most of the defendants. Thus, the trial continued against Toyota Motor Sales and Toyota Motor Corp. only on the claim that the seat back in Mr. Gutcher’s Camry was faulty and failed to protect him from injury. Plaintiffs’ counsel argued that Mr. Gutcher’s seat was defectively designed because it collapsed rearward, and not frontward. Counsel contended that the seat collapsed, or failed, and engaged in too much of a rearward motion, and that the seat should not have yielded as it did. Counsel argued that as a result of the excessive motion, Mr. Gutcher’s brain was exposed to the acceleration forces, which caused a shearing of the veins that bridge between the brain and dura, resulting in a subdural hematoma and permanent brain damage. Counsel further contended that the design of the seat should have been stronger and more resistant to deflecting rearward. Thus, plaintiffs’ counsel argued that if the seat had not collapsed rearward, Mr. Gutcher would not have been injured. Toyota claimed that the 1999 Camry’s seats surpassed Federal Motor Safety Standards and were equipped with advanced safety features. Though all parties agreed the seat moved rearward, Toyota contended the seat moved in controlled deformation and yielded, as it was designed to do in a rear-end impact, in order to absorb the crash energy from the collision. Defense counsel argued that Gutcher’s were due to the force of the crash itself, and not due to the car’s seat design, as Hernandez’s vehicle rear-ended Mr. Gutcher’s vehicle at 45 mph. Counsel also noted that there were other multiple impacts involved, including Mr. Gutcher rear-ending the vehicle in front of him and being sideswiped by another vehicle. Thus, defense counsel argued that it could not be determined which of these impacts allegedly caused Mr. Gutcher’s subdural hematoma or shearing of the bridging veins., During the accident, Mr. Gutcher’s brain was exposed to acceleration forces, causing a shearing of the veins that bridge between the brain and dura. As a result, he sustained a subdural hematoma, which caused his brain to shift and result in a traumatic brain injury. Mr. Gutcher was subsequently taken to a hospital, where he was placed in a drug-induced coma. However, when he was brought out of the coma, Mr. Gutcher’s family claimed that he had suffered cognitive changes as a result of his brain trauma. Plaintiffs’ counsel contended that Mr. Gutcher has permanent brain damage, resulting in memory loss and Alzheimer’s-like dementia. Family and friends testified that Mr. Gutcher’s speech patterns have changed and that Mr. Gutcher has been described as childlike. Counsel also contended that Mr. Gutcher’s job productivity has declined and a co-worker is now handling the bulk of what used to be Mr. Gutcher’s responsibilities. Mr. Gutcher’s family brought a separate suit against Toyota for his wife’s loss of consortium and for the daughters’ own . The matter was to be joined for trial, but they ultimately settled their claims. Defense counsel contended that Mr. Gutcher still goes to work every day, skis, enjoys movies, and engages in life, but acknowledged that Mr. Gutcher has some impairment and slowness. However, defense counsel disputed the plaintiff’s experts’ opinions on Mr. Gutcher’s future care, arguing that the alleged future care was excessive.
Superior Court of Kern County, Kern, CA

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