Nephi • More than 15 years after his wife died in a car crash, and long after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a precedent-setting decision on seat belt safety requirements in a lawsuit over her death, Delbert Ondi Williamson still struggles.
The 49-year-old Utahn, who goes by his middle name, says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the head-on crash that killed Thanh Williamson and injured him and their daughter. The PTSD, as well as a bipolar disorder that was diagnosed after the 2002 collision, made him unable to work for years and led to continuing mental health treatment to help him deal with the crushing depression that grips him at times, Williamson said.
But Williamson takes comfort in his legal victory and keeps a brief from the court case, Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America Inc., on his nightstand as a reminder that some good came out of tragedy. The unanimous decision in the case opened the door for more people who are injured because of the defective design of a seat belt or other equipment to sue for compensation.
“When a loved one passes away, you want a legacy,” Williamson said. “This is Thanh’s legacy, the Supreme Court decision. A lot of people are protected because of our loss.”
He calls the Utah and California lawyers who stuck with the case for years as it moved through courts in the two states a “godsend.” Despite the high costs of litigating the matter, they never charged him.
“Those guys were stellar,” Williamson said. “Their financial outlay was a lot.”
The lawyers — Richard Burbidge, of the Burbidge | Mitchell law firm in Salt Lake City; David Lira and Thomas Girardi, who are with Girardi | Keese in Los Angeles; and Martin Buchanan, who has his office in San Diego — were honored recently by the Consumer Attorneys of California.
The organization selected the four as 2017 Consumer Attorneys of the Year for significantly advancing the rights or safety of consumers by achieving a noteworthy result in a case.
Burbidge said the legal team took the case not for the money but because it was the right thing to do.
“There was a principle that was critical to consumers,” he said. “All of us joined in the effort because it was an important issue.”
The lawsuit originally was filed in California (Mazda’s North American headquarters are located in Irvine). After the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in 2011, the case went back to California at first and then, at Mazda’s request, to Utah’s 6th District Court.
In 2013, the suit was transferred to federal court in Salt Lake City and Burbidge spent years preparing the case for trial. Last April, shortly before a trial was slated to begin, Williamson and Mazda reached a confidential settlement.
The catastrophic crash occurred Aug. 14, 2002, as Ondi and Thanh Williamson, 32, along with their 7-year-old daughter, Alexa, were traveling in Kane County in their 1993 Mazda MPV minivan.
Ondi Williamson, who was at the wheel, and Alexa, who was sitting directly behind him in the middle row of the minivan, were wearing three-point lap-and-shoulder seat belts. Thanh Williamson was sitting to her daughter’s right in a seat that had an aisle next to it. She was buckled into a two-point lap belt, the only seat belt available at that position.
As the minivan headed north on U.S. 89 through the small community of Orderville, Ondi Williamson saw a motor home going south and noticed a Jeep Wrangler drift out from behind it. He assumed the driver was checking on whether it was safe to pass and that the Jeep would get back behind the motor home.
But there was no driver inside and the Jeep — which was being towed by the motor home and had became detached — kept heading into the northbound lane.
Williamson, who was driving about 35 mph and was still unaware the Jeep was driverless, started moving to the right but there wasn’t enough time to get out of the way. The Jeep smashed head-on into the minvan.
The collision left Ondi Williamson with fractures to his right wrist, ankle and foot, and Alexa Williamson had abdominal bruising and other injuries, but their lap-and-shoulder belts had saved them from life-threatening injuries. Thanh Williamson, though, had jackknifed over her lap belt, which caused fatal abdominal injuries and internal bleeding, according to court records.
“You could see the seat belt just gouging into her,” Ondi Williamson said.
His wife was crying and he told Alexa to hold her hand. A man came up to the minivan, and Williamson asked him to help his wife and daughter first. The rescuer smashed a window to get inside and the Williamsons were taken to a hospital.
Thanh Williamson endured several hours of severe pain before she died, according to the suit.
“It was not the head-on impact that killed Thanh,” Burbidge said, “it was the belt.”
Funeral services were held at the Juab County fairgrounds in Nephi and more than 600 people attended, Ondi Williamson said.
Wrongful death and negligence
Ondi Williamson reached a settlement with the motor home driver but went to court over Mazda’s liability. The lawsuit — filed in 2004 in Orange County Superior Court in California on behalf of Ondi and Alexa Williamson and Thanh Williamson’s estate — accused the automaker of wrongful death and negligence, among other claims, and sought an unspecified amount of money.
The suit alleged the design of the lap-only belt was defective because it did not provide adequate protection in front-end collisions. The rear seating positions should have been equipped with three-point seat belts, the suit said.
Mazda’s lawyers denied the minivan or any of its components were defective or uncrashworthy. In addition, the lawyers said the suit was pre-empted because the seat belts in the minivan complied with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208.
The version of FMVSS 208 in effect at the time required lap-and-shoulder belts on seats next to a vehicle’s doors or frames. But automakers could install either lap belts or lap-and-shoulder belts on rear middle seats and rear seats next to a minivan’s aisle, according to court records.
The Superior Court judge granted Mazda’s motion to dismiss the case and Williamson’s lawyers appealed to the California Court of Appeal, where a three-judge panel unanimously upheld the dismissal in 2008. The panel’s decision said that siding with Williamson would bar vehicle manufacturers from using one of the passenger restraint options authorized under federal law by effectively requiring them to install only lap-and-shoulder belts to avoid liability under California law.
After the California Supreme Court declined to review that decision, Lira and Buchanan went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which asked then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan, as representative of the federal government, to weigh in on the issue.
(By the time the arguments were held, Kagan had become a U.S. Supreme Court justice. She did not participate in the decision in the case.)
In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Office of the Solicitor General said Williamson should be allowed to sue Mazda.
During oral arguments on Nov. 3, 2010, attorney William Jay, assistant to the solicitor general, said Mazda complied with the federal minimum standard by installing a lap seat belt, but argued the automaker is not exempted from the consequences of its seat belt choice under state common law.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — the part of the Department of Transportation that sets safety standards — had specifically encouraged the installation of the lap-and-shoulder belts where it was feasible, Jay said. He argued it was feasible in the Williamson vehicle, pointing out that “it was found to be feasible in 1991 by General Motors, which installed them.”
In his argument, Buchanan contended that Congress wanted state law to have a significant role in compensating accident victims and promoting greater safety in vehicle design. He also said it would have been “perfectly feasible” for Mazda to install lap-and-shoulder belts in aisle seats when it manufactured the minivan in 1993.
An attorney for Mazda, Gregory Garre, countered that NHTSA “could not have been more clear” that it did not want to mandate lap-and-shoulder belts be installed in rear center and aisle seats. The agency determined that giving carmakers options on which seat belt to install would create the flexibility necessary to advance federal safety and practicability objectives, he said.
Lap-and-shoulder belts in rear center and aisle seats are “substantially expensive,” Garre said, and NHTSA knew imposing those costs could have proved counterproductive with the agency’s long-term safety mission.
Garre also said NHTSA recognized there were safety issues with lap-and-shoulder belts in minivans, including the possibility that they could block passengers’ exit from the back row in an emergency because they would have to stretch across the aisle. In addition, the lap-and-shoulder belt can create “unique chest loads on children” and cross over the neck or head of a child who is not in a booster seat, he said.
After the arguments, the Supreme Court took the case under consideration.
After the crash, Ondi Williamson’s life fell apart
The Williamsons were approaching their 10th wedding anniversary at the time of crash. Thanh Davenport, who was working as a secretary at Brigham Young University in Provo, and Ondi Williamson, who was living in Salt Lake City, had met when they were set up on a double date.
The two married in 1992 at the Mesa, Ariz., temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, near where the bride grew up. Alexa was born in 1995, and the family moved to Nephi to put down roots.
Before the crash, Ondi Williamson worked in construction, and he and his wife owned a small motel in Nephi. After the crash, his life fell apart, and he wasn’t able to return to work.
“I used to take care of everything,” he said, “but I couldn’t take care of myself.”
He had not suffered from mental illness before, but now the PTSD and bipolar disorder were wreaking havoc, Williamson said. The stress he was feeling became so severe that he didn't leave his house for nearly two years.
Williamson ended up selling the motel and started Ondi’s Garage, an auto repair business. He said the work, which includes providing roadside service, is therapy for him.
He also credits the love of his family for helping him through the hard times. His parents moved from St. George to Nephi to be close to him and Alexa, and Thanh Williamson’s parents remain a big part of his life. At the urging of his father-in-law, Williamson went to a Mormon singles’ ward, where he met his current wife, Tina.
The two have parented nine children together: Williamson’s daughter from a brief first marriage and Alexa from his marriage to Thanh; Tina Williamson’s four children from her previous marriage; a son they had together; a daughter they adopted; and a neighborhood girl who stayed with them long term. Both have treated the other’s children as their own.
Alexa Williamson Geisler, who is now 22 and married, said she has had “two great moms,” adding: “Not many people can say that.”
Tina Williamson said she always knew the marriage would work.
“It never occurred to me it wouldn’t, so it did,” she said.
Ruling ‘protects consumers’
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision Feb. 23, 2011, reversing the suit’s dismissal in an 8-0 vote and saying the Williamson family could sue Mazda. Seven justices joined in a majority opinion, while Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion that concurred in the result but gave different reasoning for arriving at that decision.
The court said federal auto safety standards do not pre-empt a state lawsuit that alleges a defective seat belt design.
The ruling noted that suits against manufacturers who meet minimum safety standards can be pre-empted if there is a specific statement in the regulation that bars them and gives justification for the pre-emption. However, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court, said FMVSS 208 does not bar the Williamson suit.
“We conclude that providing manufacturers with this seat belt choice is not a significant objective of the federal regulation,” Breyer said.
The justice also wrote that the regulation’s history shows the Department of Transportation was convinced lap-and-shoulder belts would increase safety; did not fear additional safety risks from use of those belts; and although it was concerned about additional costs, that concern was diminishing.
Today, all motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less are required to have lap-and-shoulder belts at seating positions like the one in the Williamson minivan. However, the seat belt issue is still relevant for older vehicles on the road.
According to the solicitor general’s brief, more than 1 million vehicles in the United States in 2008 were equipped with some lap belts, which potentially could be the subject of a lawsuit.
Burbidge said the Supreme Court decision affects not just seat belts, but all kinds of equipment with design defects.
“It protects consumers,” he said of the ruling.
When he lost at the California Court of Appeal, Williamson said, he first thought the case was done. But he and his lawyers persisted.
“I’m very tenacious,” Williamson said. “They were willing to go with me, and I was willing to go with them.”