In 2013, Matthew Seebachan of Dallas suffered fourth-degree burns when he and his wife, Marcia, were involved in a horrific car accident. Ever since then, Matthew Seebachan has been living in so much pain that burn doctors compare it to the feeling of giving birth – every second of the day.
“When you get fourth-degree burns, it totally destroys your nerve endings,” Todd Tracy, the Seebachans’ attorney, told BodyShop Business. “And over the course of your lifetime, those nerve endings will never come back. But what they do is they fire these electrical currents, and it’s like stepping on a nail every single second of the day.”
In their negligence lawsuit against John Eagle Collision Center of Dallas, the Seebachans asked for $42 million in damages – or 5 cents for every second that Matthew Seebachan is expected to live. They argued that the body shop’s improper repair of their 2010 Honda Fit compromised the vehicle’s structural integrity and exacerbated their injuries when the accident occurred.
On Oct. 2, a jury in the 192nd Civil District Court of Dallas County awarded $41.966 million in damages to the Seebachans, ordering John Eagle Collision Center to pay 75 percent of that amount, or nearly $31.5 million.
The crux of the case, according to Tracy, is that the body shop “made a conscious decision” to deviate from Honda’s repair specifications when it chose to glue, rather than weld, a new roof onto the Seebachans’ hail-damaged vehicle, citing pressure from State Farm to keep costs down.
“So the jury came back and said, ‘Well, if John Eagle is going to make a conscious business decision, we’re going to make a conscious business decision for them, and that is to hit them so hard that they don’t do it again,’” Tracy told BodyShop Business. “That’s really the nuts and bolts of it.”
OEM Repair Manual: ‘Safety Bible’
During the trial, a John Eagle corporate representative acknowledged that the collision center considers the Honda Fit body repair manual – which clearly calls for a replacement roof to be welded in place – “their safety bible,” according to Tracy.
“They violated their safety bible,” Tracy added. “And they violated it because they wanted to get paid instead.”
The 10-2 jury verdict was the culmination of a weeklong trial. Tracy said he wasn’t surprised by the decision, but he was taken aback by the jury’s attention to detail in calculating the damages all the way down to pennies.
He believes the jury paid “extremely close attention” in part because vehicle repair is a universal topic.
“It’s timeless because it affects everybody,” Tracy told BodyShop Business. “There’s not a person in the world who hasn’t had to deal with a service repair shop.”
Body Shop ‘Guided by Insurance’
The facts of the case have become well-known to many in the collision repair industry.
After a hailstorm in summer 2012, the previous owner of the Honda Fit took the vehicle to John Eagle Collision Center for repair. In a court deposition, the collision center’s director admitted that John Eagle deliberately violated Honda’s 2009-2013 Honda Fit Body Repair Manual when the shop glued the new steel roof onto the vehicle with 3M 8115 adhesive.
In a deposition for the John Eagle lawsuit, Boyce Willis, the body shop director, asserted that the shop’s repair procedures are “guided by insurance.”
“So … if you brought your car into my shop, right, the insurance company’s going to dictate … how we’re going to repair your car,” Willis said during the deposition.
Tracy responded by asking: “As a certified body shop … the insurance company cannot trump the OEM specifications, correct, sir?”
“Yes, they can,” Willis answered. “By not paying the bill.”
The Seebachans bought the used 2010 Honda Fit from Huffines Kia in Denton, Texas, four months before the crash. The CARFAX report did not disclose the roof repair when the Seebachans purchased the vehicle.
In December 2013, the Seebachans were on their way to spend Christmas with Marcia Seebachan’s grandmother in the Texas Hill Country when a Toyota Tundra struck their vehicle.
The lawsuit contended that the force of the collision caused the Honda Fit’s improperly repaired roof to buckle, which set off a chain reaction – the car’s safety cage collapsed and the fuel tank below the driver’s seat ruptured.
Trapped behind the steering wheel, Matthew Seebachan remained conscious as flames enveloped his feet and lower legs before a motorist pulled him from the burning vehicle. Another motorist rescued Marcia Seebachan through the passenger window of the Honda Fit.
The 10-2 jury verdict assigned 75 percent of the blame to John Eagle Collision Center and 25 percent of the blame to Jack Jordan, who was driving the Toyota Tundra. But Jordan won’t have to pay the nearly $10.5 million in damages that the jury attributed to him, Tracy told BodyShop Business.
“He was not a party to the case,” Tracy said. “He’s responsible for none of it, legally.”