Mobile, Alabama – Kia has been hit with a US$40 million wrongful death verdict in a U.S. court, following five years of litigation and two appeals. An Alabama jury returned the verdict against Kia Motors of America, Kia Motors Corporation and DBI/Celltrion in a complaint filed by Tonya Leytham.

The case involved seatbelt buckles in 1995 through 2000 Kia Sephia and Sportage vehicles. The seatbelt buckles had a safety defect that caused them to be susceptible to “false latching,” when the user thinks the seatbelt is properly buckled but it is not. In a crash, the condition can allow the buckle to unlatch.

In 2002, the U.S. government inquired about the problem, and in December 2002, Kia issued a safety recall for 1995 through 1998 vehicles. Vehicles from 1999 and 2000 were not recalled although they had the same buckle design as the cars that were recalled. According to the lawsuit, 189,000 cars were recalled, but 251,000 cars with the same defective buckle were not recalled and owners were not notified of the defect.

In April 2004, the U.S. government asked why 1999 and 2000 vehicles had not been included, and asked Kia to deliver more than a dozen buckles for government testing. Kia did not deliver the buckles and in June 2004 advised the government that it would expand the recall in 2004 to include 1999 and 2000 model-year vehicles.

The lawsuit involved Tiffany Stabler, who received a used 1999 Kia Sephia from her father when she turned 16 on May 6, 2004. The car had been serviced at a Kia dealership but the seatbelt buckles had not been recalled. On July 4, 2004, Stabler was driving the car and wearing her seatbelt when she lost control and crashed. The seatbelt buckle failed, Stabler was ejected from the vehicle and died from her injuries.

“Tiffany’s father would never have given his little girl that car if he thought it was unsafe,” said lawyer Skip Finkbohner. “While the jury’s verdict does not change the fact that Tiffany’s death could have been and should have been prevented, hopefully it will result in a change in business practices so that when a product manufacturer knows that its product has a safety defect, it will make full and complete disclosure and promptly recall all of the defective products and not just some of them.”

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