Toyota, estate of driver found liable in wreck; Jury awards $59 million to injured Bowie man


A Baltimore Circuit Court jury yesterday ordered Toyota Motor Corp. and the estate of a Harford County man to pay $59 million to Prashant Kumar of Bowie for injuries suffered in a car accident three years ago.

Yesterday's verdict is not final; Judge John Carroll Byrnes must hand down a judgment, and he could reduce the award. Under New Jersey law, Toyota could be liable for about $25 million and the estate of Alfred C. Shumar, the driver who caused the accident, would be responsible for the balance. The estate's attorney could not be reached for comment.

The accident happened in June 1997 in New Jersey as Shumar and two friends were returning from Atlantic City and Kumar and a friend were on their way to the resort town.

According to court documents, Shumar's 1987 Cadillac went over the center line on state Route 40 and hit the 1996 Toyota Tercel in which Kumar, then 25, was a passenger.

Kumar's seat was in the reclining position, and when the two cars crashed, he slid under his seatbelt. The accident injured his legs so badly they had to be amputated. He now uses a wheelchair.

Shumar and his two passengers were not wearing seatbelts. All three died.

"Auto manufacturers as a whole need to warn people of the dangers of reclining seats in a car that's in motion," Kumar said yesterday in an interview.

He said he will accept half the award, about $28 million, if Toyota agrees to post warnings on its dashboards about the dangers of riding while reclined as well as fix the seats in 1996 and 1995 Tercels, which his lawyers said are faulty and do not stay locked in place.

A spokesman for the automaker said the cars are safe and an appeal is under consideration. The official said it "remains to be seen" whether Toyota will consider adding a warning to its cars and noted no other automakers have such warnings.

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