NEW ORLEANS—A state appeals court has upheld a jury award of more than $5 million to a Louisiana couple whose unborn son was fatally injured when their 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee backed up and pinned the mother against a brick column.
August and Juli Guillot's lawsuit claimed the car's transmission had a defective design that caused it to suddenly shift from park to reverse after the St. Bernard Parish couple had exited the vehicle.
DaimlerChrysler appealed a jury's 2008 verdict awarding $5.08 million to the family, but Friday's ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal rejects the company's claim that the judge presiding over the trial made several errors.
The couple initially assumed the 1999 accident had been caused by leaving the car in reverse, but they sued in 2001 after receiving a call from a Los Angeles Times reporter investigating similar "park-to-reverse" complaints about Jeep Grand Cherokees.
A three-judge panel from the 4th Circuit rejected the company's claim that the suit should be thrown out because the Guillots missed a deadline for suing. The couple didn't have "the appropriate information to file a claim at the moment the accident occurred," the court said.
A "vehicle defect was never suspected by the investigating officer, and Mr. Guillot blamed himself for the accident for two years," the ruling says.
The court also concluded the jury's award wasn't excessive.
"It is indisputable that the unique facts of this case are extraordinarily tragic," the ruling says.
On May 21, 1999, Juli Guillot was nine months pregnant when she and her husband entered the Jeep in preparation for driving from their Violet home to the hospital so she could give birth. Before they left, Juli exited the vehicle to retrieve a book from the back seat while her husband went to retrieve a cell phone.
That's when the Jeep started to move backward and crushed Juli's midsection between a car door and the column.
"When questioned why he assumed he left the vehicle in reverse rather than immediately suspecting a defect, Mr. Guillot testified, 'It's the only thing I could think that happened,"' the court's ruling says.
Their son, Collin, was born with permanent brain damage. The couple elected to remove him from life support on June 7, 1999.
Scott Nealey, a lawyer for the Guillots, said the couple was "extremely pleased" with the court's ruling.
"The most important thing for them was just the vindication of the jury's verdict," he said, adding that the company had blamed them for the accident and claimed it was "all their fault."
Michael Palese, a spokesman for Chrysler Group LLC, said the evidence showed that the accident wasn't a result of a defect in the vehicle.
"The Guillot case was indeed a very tragic case and one in which the company has tremendous sympathy for the family," he added.