In a verdict that could potentially change the way body shops do business, a Texas jury has awarded a couple $42 million after they were severely injured in a crash they should have walked away from—except, a repair center had secretly glued a replacement roof onto their car, instead of welding it on as the manufacturer specified.
It's every used-car buyer's worst nightmare to discover that their recently-purchased ride is carrying some dark and potentially dangerous secrets. For Matthew and Marcia Seebachan, that realization came too late when in 2013 an oncoming pickup truck hydroplaned and struck their 2010 Honda Fit nearly head-on. An engineer later testified that the crash was "virtually identical" to the IIHS's moderate-overlap crash test, and that the 2010 Fit has a "good" rating. However, the force of the impact caused the roof to separate, leading to a cascade of structural failures that jammed the doors shut and caused the fuel tank to ignite.
The Seebachans were trapped for several minutes before witnesses pulled them from the burning wreckage. According to medical records submitted to the court, Marcia suffered several broken bones, bruises, and internal bleeding. Matthew wasn't as lucky, enduring fourth-degree burns to his lower body, two broken heels, and a host of other injuries that left him hospitalized for much of the last four years. Rather than becoming an RN as he always dreamed, he's now a "professional patient," in and out of doctor's offices every week, he told CBS 11 News.
Soon after the crash, the couple hired a local attorney named Todd Tracy to look into the car's past. What he found was nothing short of shocking: in 2012, months before the Seebachans bought the car, the previous owner had brought the Honda Fit into John Eagle Collision Center after the roof had been damaged by hail. Yet rather than weld on a new panel, as Honda requires, the shop instead opted to use an untested epoxy adhesive. None of this was disclosed in the vehicle history report provided to the couple when they made the purchase.
"To have someone drop on you that it could've been prevented is the worst feeling. It just leaves you in shock," Marcia told Fox 4 News.
As bad as that sounds, it's the "why" that really brings this case home. In a deposition, the manager of John Eagle Collision Center acknowledged that manufacturers put out guidance on how their cars are supposed to be repaired, but implied that insurance companies often pressure independent shops to cut costs by using cheaper methods. This doesn't absolve the shop of blame, but it does present a strong argument: the insurance check keeps the doors open and the lights on, so why else would the shop cheap out on a repair with their name on the line?
We may soon know for sure. The Seebachans are now suing State Farm, their insurance company, over that very allegation—for the total sum of just one dollar. Why the token amount? It's about the message at this point.
"I hope people absolutely can quote this case and reference that number and I hope it leaves an impression on people’s minds. We don’t want anyone else to have to go through this," Marcia said to CBS 11 News. "If somebody were to lose their life or their kid or their health, there’s no amount of money that can fix that for them. Please just care about people’s lives more than you care about the bottom line."
For their part, State Farm denies the suggestion they bullied John Eagle Collision Center—or any other shop—into performing unsafe repairs to save money.
"The comments made about State Farm cited in this lawsuit and press release are not supported by the facts. Additionally they are not in line with State Farm’s mission to serve the needs of our customers and our long, proud history of advancing vehicle safety,” the company said in a statement.