Norman vs. Honda

In the early hours of December 2, 1992, a woman named Karen Norman and her passenger, Josel Woods were parked near a boat ramp in Galveston Bay in the state of Texas. When Karen attempted to put her vehicle in reverse, she accidentally backed down the boat ramp and into the bay, submerging the vehicle, which was a 1991 Honda Civic.

Her passenger, Josel Woods, was able to escape the vehicle through the passenger side window and swim to the dock. As she was swimming, she heard Karen call twice for help, saying that she could not get her seatbelt unlatched. The 1991 Honda Civic, like many vehicles of the time, had an automatic locking seatbelt that ran over the driver side door. Karen’s seat was pushed so far forward that she was unable to click the release button that would have unlatched the seatbelt in place. 

A few hours later, after police had arrived on scene, Karen’s body was found in the back seat of the Honda Civic. It was discovered that her blood alcohol levels were well above the 0.08% limit for driving, at 0.17%. Despite this fact, Karen’s surviving family brought a civil claim against Honda, claiming that the design of the seatbelt was defective.

In court, the judge found that Karen Norman was 25 percent at-fault for her own passing, due to the fact that she was under the influence of alcohol when she backed the vehicle down the Galveston Bay boat ramp. The family and Karen’s estate was awarded a total of $65 million, which was then reduced to $32 million after contributory negligence was applied. 

Unfortunately, when Honda brought the case to the Appellate court, the judges found in favor of Honda, citing that the Norman’s had failed to adequately prove that the design of the seatbelt was defective. In order for the Norman’s to have proved that the product was defective, they would have had to show the following:

  • There was a safer seatbelt design alternative available
  • The safer option would have reasonably reduced the risk of injury without compromising the purpose of the seatbelt
  • The safer seatbelt option would have been economically and technologically feasible after Honda Civics equipped with the original seatbelts had already been available to the public. 

The panel of three judges cited their reason for overturning the original award was in part due to the fact that the seatbelt design was not “unreasonably dangerous” as it was originally designed. 



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