A Douglas County jury on Friday awarded an Omaha woman $6.5 million for injuries she suffered when her air bag didn’t fully deploy in an April 2007 crash.
Katherine M. Sprague, now 70, suffered a dislocation to the vertebrae in her upper neck, according to court accounts.
She underwent weeks of rehabilitation and battled to walk again. Eventually she filed a civil lawsuit against the carmaker.
After a two-week trial, jurors deliberated about 4½ hours before ordering Toyota Motor Corp. to pay Sprague $6.5 million for past medical bills, any care she may need in the future and for general damages due to pain and suffering.
Sprague, who was wearing a seat belt, was driving north on 132nd Street when a southbound driver turning east onto Pacific Street failed to yield and caused the collision.
The force of the crash pushed Sprague’s Lexus up a limestone wall on the northeast corner of the intersection. Her grandson in the back seat was not injured.
The jury found that the driver’s side air bag in her 2004 Lexus ES 330 was defective.
Sprague’s attorneys, Lynn Shumway of Phoenix and John Weis of Omaha, presented evidence that the air bag didn’t fully inflate — which either caused Sprague’s head to hit the steering wheel or to snap back more violently than it otherwise would have.
Attorneys for Toyota, the manufacturer of Lexus luxury vehicles, suggested to jurors that the way Sprague was sitting in the driver’s seat — and the fact that her seat belt was not taut against her body — contributed to the extent of her injuries.
The carmaker’s attorneys could not be reached for comment Friday. Toyota is expected to appeal the verdict.
“We sympathize with anyone in an accident involving one of our vehicles,’’ the company said in a statement. “However, we disagree that the injuries in this case are the result of any issues related to air bag deployment in the 2004 Lexus ES 330 at issue in this case.
We will study the record and carefully consider our options.”
No known recalls have been issued for that air bag, Weis said.
On its verdict form, the jury concluded that the car did not “conform to the generally recognized and prevailing state of the art in the industry at the time the 2004 Lexus ES 330 was first sold by Toyota.”
Shumway and Weis argued that the air bag’s poor inflation was due to a design defect.
Weis said Friday afternoon that he doesn’t know whether the failure to fully inflate was specific only to Sprague’s case — that is, the sensors in the vehicle and the position of the driver’s seat at the time of impact.
He said Sprague doesn’t remember if she hit her head on the steering column.
Court accounts indicated that the force of the impact caused her upper vertebrae to basically form an “L” in her neck.
Sprague went through extensive rehabilitation at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in order to be able to walk. During the trial, she shuffled, slowly and gingerly, through the courthouse.
The damages awarded also account for medical care and any at-home assistance she may need in the future.
“Kathy is a private person, but I can tell you she is happy with the result,” Weis said. “We think the jury worked really hard and came to a just and fair conclusion.”