Rear-center-seat passenger in older Toyota has no shoulder restraint, suffers paraplegia. $11.7 million verdict after no offer. Monterey County.


Older model Toyota does not have shoulder belt (3-point restraint) for rear-center-seat passenger. Plaintiff's intoxicated driver loses control and hits a tree. No offer before trial. 

The Case

  • Case Name: Hill v. Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc., et al.
  • Court and Case Number: Superior Court of Monterey / M114985
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Friday, October 17, 2014
  • Date Action was Filed: Monday, November 14, 2011
  • Type of Case: Products Liability
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Thomas Wills
  • Plaintiffs:
    Chelsie Hill, 22, student/speaker
  • Defendants:
    TOYOTA MOTOR SALES, USA INC., a California Corporation
    TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATION, a Japanese Corporation
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $12,569,853.66
  • Net Verdict or Award: $11,741,361.01
  • Contributory/Comparative Negligence: 90% Toyota; 5% Chelsie Hill; 5% Aaron Corn (driver).
  • Economic Damages:


  • Non-Economic Damages:


  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 24 Court Days
  • Jury Deliberation Time: Approx. 5 hours
  • Jury Polls: 12-0 plaintiff, on failure to warn; 9-3 plaintiff, consumer benefit design defect; 9-3 plaintiff, risk-benefit design defect; 0-12 defendant; failure to retrofit.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Bohnen Rosenthal & Kreeft by Robert E. Rosenthal and Andrew B. Kreeft, Monterey.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Bowman & Brooke LLP by Vincent Galvin and James W. Halbrooks, Jr., San Jose.

The Experts

  • Plaintiff’s Medical Expert(s):

    Robert Lieberson, M.D., neurosurgery, Stanford. (Treating physician)

    Gregg Adams, M.D., surgery, San Jose. (Treating physician)   

    Akshat Shah, M.D., physical medicine/rehabilitaion, San Jose. (Treating physician)

  • Defendant's Medical Expert(s):

    Elizabeth H. Raphael M.D., emergency medicine, Stanford.

  • Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):

    Ben Kelly, hazardous product expert, Pebble Beach.

    Lila Laux, Ph.D., warnings expert, Denver, CO.

    William Broadhead, automotive safety, Santa Barbara.

    Kurt Weiss, automotive safety, Santa Barbara.

    Stanley D. Dorrance, MBA, forensic expert, Fresno. 

    Paul M. Deutsch, Ph.D., life care planning, Oviedo, FL.

    Fred A. Raffa, Ph.D., economics, Orlando FL.

    Carley Ward, Ph.D., biodynamics engineering, Phoenix, AZ.

  • Defendant's Technical Expert(s):

    Thomas R. Perl, Ph.D., collission engineering, Orem, UT.

    Robert Gratzinger, MS, MBA, engineering, Irvine.

    Michael B. James, P.E., MS, collission engineering, Orem, UT.

    Christopher J. Borgert, Ph.D.

    Jeya Padmanaban, MS, automotive safety, Mountain View.

    Thomas Hedge Jr., M.D., physical medicine/rehabilitation, Northridge.

    Linda D. Olzack, RN, Merced.

    David Weiner, MBA.

    Timothy P. Rhoades, Ph.D., engineering, Ann Arbor, MI.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    This lawsuit arose from a solo vehicle accident on February 21, 2010 which involved a driver and four passengers traveling at a speed of 30 mph in a 1996 Toyota 4Runner.  After leaving a late-night party with friends where she had been drinking, plaintiff Chelsie Hill was seated in the rear center seat and was wearing the two-point (lap belt only) restraint that was provided by defendant Toyota. All other four seating positions were provided a three-point (lap and shoulder belt) restraint.

    The vehicle's driver, Aaron Corn, was southbound on Skyline in Pacific Grove, approaching Skyline Forest at an unsafe speed. Corn was unable to negotiate the curve in the roadway and crossed over into the northbound lane of Skyline. His vehicle left the roadway and ultimately collided with a tree. It had been raining and the roadway was wet. 

    As a result of the frontal collision with the tree, plaintiff’s upper torso violently and forcefully flexed forward over the lap belt and she sustained a Chance fracture at L3, along with other associated abdominal injuries. Plaintiff underwent multiple surgeries immediately following the accident and her medical records, as well as the testimony of her treating surgeons, indicate that her Chance fracture, as well as the paralysis she suffered from that injury, was caused by the extreme forward flexion over her lap belt, and would have been avoided had she been provided a three-point (lap and shoulder) restraint. 

    The vehicle's driver pleaded no contest to felony drunken driving. The four other passengers (not having a lap-only restraint) walked away from the accident with relatively minor injuries.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    Plaintiff’s primary contentions were as follows:

                1. In 1996, Toyota knew that two-point lap belts can cause catastrophic/life threatening injuries in frontal collisions, and “frontal collisions” represent the most common crash configuration;

                2. Toyota, as well as the automotive industry in general, had been aware of the dangers and risks associated with two-point lap belts since the 1970s, and were concurrently aware of the substantial safety advantages of a three-point lap and shoulder restraint;

                3. A three-point lap and shoulder restraint for the rear center seat of the 1996 Toyota 4Runner was both technically feasible and not unreasonably costly;

                4. Toyota had a duty to equip the rear center seat of the 1996 4Runner with a three-point lap and shoulder restraint.  (To the extent Toyota argues that plaintiff “misused” the manual adjustment two-point lap belt by having far too much slack, defendants should have equipped the two-point restraint lap belt with a retractor, which was both technologically and economically feasible in 1996.)


  • Defendant's Contentions:

    That plaintiff misused the lap belt; the lap belt was reasonably safe;  the impact of the accident caused plaintiff’s injuries and not the lack of a shoulder harness; further, that the intoxication of the driver and plaintiff were contributory causes of plaintiff’s injuries. Also that the majority of manufacturers were, in 1996, equipping their vehicles with two-point lap-only belts in the rear center seat, something allowed by NHTSA at the time ("state of the art" defense).  

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:

    Paraplegia: After being airlifted to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center plaintiff underwent a number of surgeries including:  (1). T3-T11 laminectomy; (2). L1-L5 Fusion, intertransverse; (3).  Segmental Fixation L1-L5; and (4). Exploratory Laparotomy.

    Plaintiff’s postoperative diagnosis was: (1). Spinal epidural Hematoma T2-T12; (2). Chance fracture L3; and (3). Complete paralysis T10.

    Lifelong need for therapy and care for paraplegia-related issues. Multiple paraplegia-related complications including osteoporosis, osteopenia and MRSA. Reduced life expectancy.

Special Damages

  • Special Damages Claimed - Past Medical: $685,066.66
  • Special Damages Claimed - Future Medical: $7,191,239
  • Special Damages Claimed - Future Lost Earnings: $763,548

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff §998 Demand: None.
  • Defendant §998 Offer: None.