Ted Harrison, Jr. v. Amy Harrison is an unusual, sad case. Ted Harrison, Jr. is Teddy Harrison, 8, who was three when his parents’ SUV was in a crash, and he was thrown clear of the vehicle and injured because his child safety restraint didn’t hold. After the accident, Minnesota state police found a coin was lodged in the buckle mechanism, and when it was latched by Teddy’s father, it gave a false click, making one think the buckle was engaged when it was not. Teddy’s father apparently failed to notice the coin even though he frequently cleaned the car seat. A product-liability lawsuit against the child safety seat manufacturer was settled.
This lawsuit, which was appealed from the Minnesota Court of Appeals and argued before the state Supreme Court last week, is a negligence action by Teddy against his parents, with their consent (his grandmother is acting as his guardian ad litem for this suit) for the liability coverage of their auto policy. Teddy’s parents are being defended by the actual target, Progressive Insurance.
The question argued to the high court was the implication of Minnesota’s statute barring introduction of evidence of the use or failure to use seat belts. The statute has an exception for “an action for damages arising out of an incident that involves a defectively designed, manufactured, installed, or operating . . . child passenger restraint system.” The statute became law in 1963 to encourage car makers to install seat belts at a time when they were not in widespread use. The exception was passed much later so that seat belt makers could not use the law as a shield in product liability cases. It is agreed that if the statute is interpreted so that evidence of the negligence of the parents in failing to clean or properly fasten the seat belt is excluded, the lawsuit will not succeed. If the evidence is introduced, it agreed that Teddy will win. The fight is over whether the exception was meant to apply only to product liability cases, or whether it is to be broadly construed. One drawback to the argument for broadly construing the law: the word "operating" could be construed broadly as "use," which would contradict the main text of the statute, which, remember, bars evidence of the use of or failure to use seat belts.
The Court of Appeals earlier upheld a trial court that allowed the evidence, saying the word "installed" in the statute includes installation by parents, broadening the exception beyond product liability cases. Here is a link to the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision.
Here’s a good story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about the case. Here is another good story from the StarTribune, the other daily paper in the Twin Cities. I also wanted to point out that the Minnesota Supreme Court has streaming video of oral arguments on this case, some of which I watched, and which you can see here. A great idea by the court, although the production values could stand a little juicing. My compliments to both sides, by the way, for fine arguments, and to the justices for good questions.
It appears the liability aspect of the case may have been settled, and that a high-low agreement is in effect depending on how the court rules. (Teddy can get no more than the agreed-upon high figure, and even if he loses, will receive no less than the low figure agreed upon).