DALLAS — “I put my seatbelt on. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” Sarah Milburn asked from her wheelchair in her attorney’s office on Friday morning.
She believed she had done everything right on that night in November 2015. During a girls’ night out, she and her friends took an Uber – a 2011 Honda Odyssey minivan. She climbed in the third row and buckled up, but when the driver ran a red light, the van flipped twice.
Milburn was trapped. Her injuries left her paralyzed.
She sued Honda, and on Wednesday, a Dallas County jury ordered the car company to pay her $37.6 million.
Jurors said Honda was negligent in the design of that 2011 Odyssey
minivan. They also found that, while the design of the van complies with federal
safety standards and regulations, those mandatory federal standards and regulations
The case centered on the design of the seatbelt for the third-row middle passenger seat. The belt drops down from the vehicle’s ceiling and features a two-step fastening process. One strap with a small anchor must be buckled into the seat first, then it is must be buckled again after it is stretched across the passenger’s shoulder and lap.
“We reach up, pull it across our shoulder, and we’re good to go. Or so we think,” said attorney Jim Mitchell, who represented Milburn. “No seat belt requires two steps. They’re designed that way for a reason.”
In a statement, Honda said it is disappointed with the verdict and will vigorously appeal.
“The design of the seatbelt system for the middle passenger in the third row seat in the 2011 Odyssey complies with all applicable federal safety standards and is similar in design to virtually all comparable minivans of this vintage. If it had been worn properly in this crash, the plaintiff would have suffered no serious injuries,” the statement said.
Honda added that other than this case, it has received no complaints of injury related to the third-row center-position seatbelt design.
Milburn and her attorneys say the verdict is just the beginning of their fight.
“What we really wanted to accomplish here is let the industry know that this seatbelt, even though it passes whatever regulations are out there, it’s still defective,” said attorney Brent Walker. “That’s something that car manufacturers don’t seem to grasp. They think if they pass the standards, it’s good enough. It’s not good enough – it’s a danger.”
Milburn’s attorneys say the jury’s decision that federal safety standards were inadequate to protect the public will be key in moving forward.
“There needs to be no other vehicle in the U.S. that has this seatbelt,” said attorney Charla Aldous. “I want ‘Sarah’s Law’ to be that this seatbelt is outlawed.”
Mitchell said they will soon start lobbying federal lawmakers for change.
“We have a jury in Dallas County that had the power, the courage, to tell the automotive industry, and Honda specifically that the motor vehicle regulations are not appropriate here,” Mitchell said.
Milburn said since her accident, she’s never been focused on money. She said legal action was about change.
“I think it happened to me so I can make a difference to help other people,” she said.
Milburn is a quadriplegic. She uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her hands.
She continues to go to rehabilitative therapy each day.
She is now 27 and lives with her parents, but her goal is to independently live. She hopes to learn to drive again soon.
“It was one night of my life and it’s not going to define every day of my life from now on,” she said. “The fight will always continue for safety.”