Kia hit with $40M judgment in faulty seatbelt death case

Alabama teen Tiffany Stabler got a 1999 Kia Sephia for her sixteenth birthday in 2004. After her father purchased the car, he took it to a Kia dealership to have all of the maintenance and recall work completed. In 2002, Kia had recalled seatbelt buckles on 1995-1998 Sephias and Sportages for a condition called "false latching," wherein a belt appears to be locked into the buckle but actually isn't. Stabler's car wasn't part of the recall, even though the 1999 and 2000 Sephias used the same buckle as the 1995-1998 models.

Just four months after receiving the car, Stabler got into an accident, was ejected from the car and later died from her injuries. Stabler's mother sued Kia, Kia Motors America and Celtrion, the Korean maker of the seatbelt, for wrongful death. After five years in trial and two visits to the Alabama Supreme Court, a lower-court jury decided for the plaintiffs and issued a $40-million judgment against Kia.

Whether or not Stabler was wearing her seatbelt was disputed: plaintiff's witnesses said she was, Kia said there was evidence that she wasn't. A lawyer for Celtrion said "the seatbelt system in her vehicle was not defective when put to normal use," even though the 1995-1998 recall was occasioned by inquiries by the U.S. government about the belts. The 1999-2000 cars were recalled in 2004, after the U.S. inquired again as to why they weren't included the first time. Kia has said it will petition the court to set aside the verdict.

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