TCJL today filed an amicus brief asking the Texas Supreme Court to grant review in Toyota Motor Corporation v. Reavis (No. 21-0575), a case that exemplifies the deployment of reptile theory trial tactics to achieve a nuclear verdict. As you may recall from a previous article regarding the Dallas Court of Appeals’ opinion, this case arose from a 2002 accident on North Central Expressway in Dallas. While stopped in traffic, plaintiffs’ Toyota Lexus was struck from behind by a Honda SUV traveling at between 45 and 48 m.p.h. The collision pushed the plaintiff’s vehicle into the vehicle in front, before the Honda struck the Lexus again at a slower speed. During the chain reaction, the plaintiffs’ seatbacks deformed, causing the plaintiffs to slip up and back into the back seats, a response to a rear-end collision called “ramping.” The plaintiffs’ heads collided with the heads of their 5 and 3-year-old children, who were secured in car seats. As a result, the children sustained severe traumatic brain injuries, though their parents suffered only minor injuries.
The plaintiffs brought suit on behalf of their minor children against Toyota, the Toyota dealer that sold them the vehicle, and the driver of the Honda SUV. They alleged design and marketing defect claims against Toyota and the dealer, negligence against the driver, and gross negligence against all defendants. After a three-week trial, the jury found Toyota liable on the design and marketing claims, the dealer liable on the marketing claim, and the driver liable for negligence. It awarded more than $98 million in actual damages (including future medical) and apportioned 90% of the fault to Toyota. It also found Toyota and the dealer grossly negligent and awarded punitive damages of nearly $110 million, $95.4 million of which charged to Toyota. Plaintiffs settled with the driver during jury deliberations, so these amounts reflect the application of the settlement credit. The trial court denied Toyota’s motions for a directed verdict, a verdict JNOV, and a new trial. The Dallas Court of Appeals, in an opinion we believe rife with reversible error, affirmed.
TCJL’s brief focuses on two issues: (1) the court of appeals’ ruling on the specificity of evidence required to rebut the presumption of non-liability if a product complies with applicable government safety standards (§82.008, CPRC); and (2) the court of appeals’ explicit approval of reptile theory trial tactics that sought to demonize a corporate defendant using highly prejudicial, inflammatory, and irrelevant evidence.
With respect to the first issue, the court of appeals effectively gutted §82.008 by allowing the plaintiff to rebut the presumption of non-liability by relying primarily on the accident itself to show that the relevant standards were “inadequate.” The whole point of §82.008, which was adopted as part of HB 4 in 2003, was to give extraordinary deference to federal safety regulations that take years of testing, studies, and documentation to promulgate. The provision recognizes the distinct roles of regulatory agencies charged with ensuring public safety and steeped in experience and expertise, and the courts charged with ensuring fairness and impartiality in the resolution of private disputes. Absent compelling, specific, and detailed evidence that clearly shows the inadequacy of a federal safety standard, courts should not be in the business of second-guessing federal regulators. The court of appeals’ opinion, in our view, opens up every product liability claim to such second-guessing because it dispenses with any evidentiary standard whatsoever.
The second issue involves the other ground for rebutting the presumption of non-liability—that a product manufacturer withheld or misrepresented information or material relevant to the government’s determination of the adequacy of the standards or regulations at issue in the case. The court of appeals enthusiastically approved of the trial court’s allowance of incredibly prejudicial and irrelevant evidence related to the corporate defendant’s government affairs efforts, the membership dues it paid to trade and industry associations that routinely lobby the federal government, and past regulatory issues that had nothing whatever to do with the alleged product defect in this case. This is exactly the problem with the reptile theory and the nuclear verdicts it produces. Instead of focusing on the accident, this trial focused on making the corporate defendant out to be a malign actor out to undermine federal safety regulations. In several recent product liability decisions, SCOTX has made it clear that this kind of evidence is improper and cannot but taint the jury. We have urged the Court to accept review and apply its precedents.