HUNTINGTON –- A man claims he became paralyzed after his 1999 Isuzu Rodeo rolled over and his seatbelt unlatched in an interstate accident.

Michael L. Kauffer and his wife, Kelly H. Kaufer, filed a lawsuit Jan. 14 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia against Isuzu and its subsidiaries, Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Fuji Heavy Industries and Takata Corporation and its subsidiaries.

In his complaint, Michael Kauffer claims he lost control of his 1999 Isuzu Rodeo while he drove in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 64 at mile marker 22 near Milton on Jan. 17, 2008.

"He took evasive action to avoid striking traffic which had suddenly come to a stop in front of him," the suit states. "Mr. Kauffer's 1999 Isuzu Rodeo rolled over during the accident sequence, the roof of the vehicle unduly caved in and the seatbelt which Mr. Kauffer was wearing released."

Because of the accident, Michael Kauffer sustained severe spinal injuries, including a C5-C6 fracture, rendering him quadriplegic and he incurred more than $500,000 in medical costs, according to the complaint.

However, Michael Kauffer and his family claim he never would have sustained such severe injuries had the seatbelt properly latched and had the Isuzu's roof not caved in.

"The Rodeo's roof and supporting structures were inadequate to protect occupants from foreseeable crash forces in rollover accidents," the complaint says. "Particularly, these components were designed and/or manufactured in such a way that the roof could unreasonably intrude into the occupant compartment in the event of a rollover.

"At the time of the design and manufacture of the Rodeo, Isuzu was specifically aware of the dangers posed by excessive roof crush in Isuzu trucks and utility vehicles during rollovers. Isuzu was aware of these dangers, in part, because of other lawsuits filed against it alleging similar roof crush in other Isuzu vehicles, including the Rodeo."

Even though it would have been relatively inexpensive to incorporate collapse resistance into the Rodeo's design, Isuzu failed to do so, the Kauffers claim.

In addition, the Rodeo's seatbelt system, which defendant Takata manufactured, could not reasonably restrain and protect its occupants in the event of a rollover, according to the complaint. The Kauffers blame the defect on the seatbelt's tendency to partially engage.

"The manner of partial engagement is achieved when the tongue of the belt is inserted into the buckle and hangs up or is barely caught on the latch," the suit states. "The latch plate seems to be properly latched because it remains in the buckle, but it actually only partially latches and, when sufficient load is placed on it during a collision, it will release."

When the buckle is only partially engaged, which Michael Kauffer claims happened at the time of his collision, the warning light on the dash disappears, leading the occupant to believe he is safely buckled in, the complaint says.

Ever since the type of seat belts used in the Isuzu have been in use, Takata and Isuzu have received customer complaints about the buckle releasing for no apparent reason, the Kauffers claim. However, neither company inspected the seat belts to discover the reasons for their failures, according to the complaint.

At the time of Michael Kauffer's accident, the 42-year-old had two minor children – one nine years of age and the other two – who lost their father's services, companionship, consortium, normal companionship, care, comfort, society, parental guidance and affection, the complaint says.

His wife says she lost her husband's services, companionship, consortium, normal companionship, care, comfort, society, spousal guidance and affection because of the accident.

In the 10-count suit, the Kauffers allege strict liability against Isuzu and Takata, negligence against Isuzu and Takata, loss of consortium and joint venture.

They seek an unspecified judgment and punitive and actual damages, plus costs, attorneys' fees, pre- and post-judgment interest and other relief the court deems just.

Timothy C. Bailey of Bucci, Bailey and Javins in Charleston, Patrick M. Ardis of Wolff Ardis in Memphis and Patrick E. McFarland of Parkersburg will be representing them.

U.S. District Court case number: 3:10-cv-40

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