The deaths of a mother and two of her children in a Hollywood traffic accident in 2012 was caused by problems with the brakes on the Infiniti QX56 that struck their minivan, attorneys for plaintiffs suing Nissan North America Inc. for more than $200 million told a jury Monday, but a lawyer for the carmaker said the crash happened because the Infiniti's driver mistook the gas pedal for the brake.
The attorneys gave their views of the accident during opening statements in a Los Angeles Superior Court trial to determine whether human error or a design defect resulted in the deaths of 27-year-old Saida Juana Mendez-Bernardino of Los Angeles and her daughters, Stephanie Cruz, 4, and Hilda Cruz, 6.
Mendez-Bernardino's oldest daughter, also a minor, is a plaintiff in the consolidated case along with Hilario Cruz, the father of the two girls who died, and Solomon Methenge, who was driving the Infiniti.
"We're not here asking for sympathy," said attorney Brett Turnbull, who represents Cruz and Mendez-Bernardino's surviving daughter. "We're here for justice on behalf of Saida, Stephanie and Hilda."
On behalf of his two clients, Turnbull is asking for $77 million for each of the three deaths, a total of more than $230 million.
Methenge's lawyer, Paul Kiesel, said his client was a hard-working immigrant who had two jobs and was heading from his Lawndale home to North Hollywood at the time of the accident. Methenge's injuries included a shattered left hip and head trauma, Kiesel said.
"This was a tragedy for every person involved," Kiesel said.
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But Nissan lawyer Thomas Klein said the evidence will show the Infiniti's brakes did not fail and that Methenge is to blame for the accident.
"This is not a case about brake failure, it's a case about failure to brake," Klein said.
The collision occurred when the minivan containing Mendez-Bernardino and her daughters was struck and pushed into a pole by the Infiniti. Methenge, then 74 and now 78, was driving north on Highland Avenue across Willoughby Avenue at about 7:20 a.m. Aug. 29, 2012, when he veered into oncoming traffic, police said previously.
Methenge was originally sued by the other plaintiffs as the lone defendant and he was also charged with three counts of vehicular manslaughter.
However, lawyers for the plaintiffs later dropped their case against him and the criminal case was dismissed by prosecutors after news reports surfaced of a nationwide class action lawsuit detailing a software defect in some Nissan models, including the Infiniti QX56.
The problems occur when a C1179 error code develops in the Infiniti optimum hydraulic braking system and the driver cannot stop despite pushing the pedal to the floor, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys. The problem is difficult to diagnose because the vehicles return to normal performance after the engine is turned off, the plaintiffs' attorneys said.
"Nissan knew this brake design was having problems," Turnbull told jurors. The car manufacturer had multiple opportunities to recall the vehicles, but chose not to, Turnbull said.
Nissan told car dealers about the problem, but only informed consumers if they experienced such a brake failure, Turnbull said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said Methenge was traveling about 48 mph, but Klein said a reconstruction of the accident showed he was moving at about 72 mph. Klein said the previous incidents of Nissan braking problems differ sharply from that of Methenge's. He said that unlike the other cases, Methenge's vehicle actually sped up before the impact occurred.
In addition to compensatory damages, lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking for punitive damages against Nissan.
Nissan manufactured the Infiniti and Continental Automotive Systems made its braking components, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys. Kiesel said after today's proceedings that the plaintiffs settled with Continental Automotive before trial.