Consumer Attorney of the Year is awarded to a CAOC member or members who significantly advanced the rights or safety of California consumers by achieving a noteworthy result in a case. The winners will be announced November 19 at the Annual Installation and Awards Dinner during CAOC’s 61st Annual Convention.
Aguirre v. Nissan North America, Inc.: A Ten-Year Fight To Prove A Dangerous Vehicle Defect
Jose Aguirre came to America seeking a better life. Though undocumented, he worked two jobs, paid taxes for a decade, and supported his fiancée and children, aged 11 months to 9 years. In August 2012, he was driving his 2001 Xterra SUV at 15 mph across his employer’s parking lot when, without warning, it suddenly accelerated. Jose’s efforts to brake the Xterra failed; it hit a concrete ramp, vaulted over a ramp, and submarined under a parked semi-tractor. The impact crushed through the A-pillar and firewall, leaving Jose a quadriplegic at age 28. Past medical costs exceeded $5 million and future medical costs were over $10 million. After spending $1 million on expert investigations, the attorneys found a defect in the gas pedal and adjacent parking brake bracket that could cause the gas pedal arm to entrap on the brake bracket, inducing sudden unintended acceleration. Nissan documented dozens of reports of such accelerations, but because the pedal arm dislodged once the driver pushed the gas pedal, Nissan missed the defect, ignored the reports, and blamed the operators, including Jose.
Despite Nissan’s parade of experts and $5 million in defense costs, the trial court found Nissan liable under Consumer Expectation, Risk Benefit, and negligence. The attorneys fought Nissan’s losing appeals for another three years before Nissan paid the verdict. The attorneys were especially motivated by Nissan’s attempts to limit Jose’s economic damages to what his income and medical costs would be in Mexico, his native country. Bob Bale raised the issue to Asm. Lorena Gonzalez at a CAOC board meeting regarding a proposed new evidence code excluding this ancient, unfair practice. CAOC took on this fight and sponsored legislation, and Noemi Esparza championed the code by testifying before the Legislature to support the bill that Gonzalez authored. Evidence Code Section 351.2 became law on January 1, 2017, to the future benefit of literally millions of California residents.