August 9, 2001 - Man allowed to sue over foot cut off by airbag

There he was, just kicking back, his feet up on the dashboard as his buddy drove the rental car. Kevin John Harrison, 26, had lost $112 the night before playing craps, and now in July 1996, on his first visit to Las Vegas _ he was hoping for a big day in the casinos.

But Harrison's decision to plop his feet on the dashboard of the black Suzuki Swift compact car proved to be a near-fatal gamble. The Orange County man's right foot was severed at the ankle by the eruption of a passenger air bag, which in 1996 was a relatively new feature that couldn't _ like today _ be turned off with a key. A minor collision sent the bag zooming out of the dashboard at 200 mph, and causing carnage below Harrison's knees. This week, an appeals court handed Harrison a victory by ruling that a jury should decide whether the car had adequate air-bag warnings.

In 1998, an Orange County judge threw out Harrison's lawsuit against American Suzuki Motor Corp. before the case got to trial. Only about one in 10 people who appeal a trial court's decision is successful. When he was reached Tuesday afternoon, Harrison's head was still spinning at the news. "I can't believe it," said Harrison, 31, owner of Everclear Detailing in Capistrano Beach. He has a wife, Tracy, and a 20-month-old son, Noah. "You never hear anything for a long time, and you forget how time passes by," said Harrison's mother, Suzanne. "I told my son, 'Good, you deserve this, honey.""

Harrison's foot was reattached, but five years later he has limited use of his right leg, and he suffers from arthritis. "I can't even run around the block," he said. Harrison has plates, screws, pins and bolts in both legs, which were broken and now can't support his former passions of basketball and football. "When I'm on the freeway, I see kids and wives all the time putting their feet up on the dashboard," Harrison said. "God, it scares me when I see that. They don't really think about it."

Harrison will seek unspecified damages from Suzuki at a trial that could start this fall. He originally was advised to take $2,000 from Suzuki to settle, but didn't. Harrison's medical bills have totaled about $100,000. Insurance has picked up most of the tab.

Lori A. Schweitzer, an attorney for Suzuki, did not return phone calls on the decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana. The Suzuki in question had the words "air bag" molded into the dashboard in front of the passenger seat, and had air-bag warnings printed on the driver- and passenger-side sun visors. The car also came with an owner's manual that spelled out warnings about air bags. In motions made before Orange County Judge Robert D. Monarch, Harrison said he was "unaware" of the warnings.

But Monarch ruled that Harrison was aware of the risks of air-bag deployment and that Suzuki provided air-bag warnings. In reversing Monarch's decision, the appeals court said a jury should decide whether the warnings were sufficient. "(Harrison) raised a triable issue of material fact as to the adequacy of the warnings," the three-member appellate panel wrote in its Aug. 3 opinion.

Paul M. Konapelsky, Harrison's attorney, said the ruling underscores the importance of consumer rights. "If companies are introducing new items to the marketplace, people need to be aware of what the product is and how it could impact them," Konapelsky said.

Harrison said he had no idea how lethal an air bag could be when he and his buddy were cruising, at about 25 mph, in Las Vegas. "I thought they were there to save you," Harrison said. "I didn't know they could be cannons."

Harrison said he was declared clinically dead in the hospital after the accident. He didn't walk for a year and a half. He still remembers the exploding air bag. "Are you all right?" the unharmed driver asked after the fender-bender. "God, my legs feel tingly," Harrison recalled saying. "When I looked down," he said, "I saw my two bones sticking out of their legs, and my right foot pretty much lying under the seat, just hanging there by a piece of meat. "Then I started screaming. I was too afraid to pass out, because I didn't think I'd ever wake up."

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