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Toyota begins Los Angeles trial in suit over Paseo belt design

LOS ANGELES October 25, 2002; Bloomberg News Reported that Toyota Motor Corp. designed a faulty 1992 Paseo seat belt that caused a former marathon runner to become a quadriplegic during a car accident, according to a lawyer suing Japan's largest automaker.

The lap belt on Jian Zhong Yang's car was four inches forward of where it needed to be to prevent the 5-foot, 7-inch man from sliding forward, letting his chin catch on his shoulder belt and "clothesline" him, said his lawyer Garo Mardirossian.

That belt design was used only in U.S. versions of the car sold in 1992, and documents about its safety testing have been destroyed, Mardirossian said. He's seeking as much as $20 million in compensation for medical bills and unspecified punitive damages against Toyota, which is the fourth-largest automaker in the U.S.

"Had Mr. Yang's belt system been properly designed, he would've walked away," Mardirossian told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury today during opening arguments.

Lawyers for Toyota will present arguments later today.

The automaker stopped production of the Paseo in 1998. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has no record of recalls, technical service bulletins or investigations involving seatbelts on the 1992 model.

Yang was driving home from his job as a chef in June 2000 when he was involved in a multiple-vehicle collision on a Los Angeles freeway. No one else was injured in the accident.

Yang's Paseo hit another vehicle at an estimated 20 to 30 miles an hour, and his car's passenger compartment didn't suffer any damage, Mardirossian. He was 34 at the time.

The trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O'Brien is expected to last through November.