A Roanoke jury has awarded $20 million to a woman who was paralyzed from the chest down when her sports car overturned in a freak accident on a country road.

The product liability verdict against Mazda Motor Corp. is believed to be the largest of its kind in Roanoke Circuit Court, at least in recent history.

Shannon Walters, 35, testified during the trial that she was forced to swerve to the left to avoid a plastic swimming pool that slipped from the bed of a pickup truck that was traveling in front of the Mazda Miata she was driving.

The largely deflated pool was airborne in the darkness at the time Walters made a split-second decision to veer off the road.

The truck did not stop, and its driver was never located after the June 2006 accident on Virginia 619 in Bedford County.

A lawsuit later asserted that Walters’ 1995 Miata convertible was defectively designed in a way that caused the windshield to collapse after the car flipped and came to a rest on its roof.

At the time, the canvas top on the convertible was closed, and Walters was not speeding or driving recklessly in any way, according to her lawsuit.

Because of the “unreasonably dangerous” design of the car, a latch system that was supposed to hold the windshield to the convertible top failed when the car came to a rest upside down, the lawsuit alleged.

The windshield then collapsed onto Walters, leaving her with serious injuries and confining her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, the jury was told.

After a trial that spanned two weeks, the jury reached its decision Wednesday night. Walters’ attorneys, John Lichtenstein and Brent Brown, released the following statement on Thursday:

“This jury worked very hard and closely considered seven days of evidence. In the end, their verdict placed legal accountability on those they unanimously determined were responsible for Ms. Walter’s devastating injuries.”

A spokesman for Mazda said Thursday that the company maintains it did nothing wrong and is considering an appeal.

“Our primary defense was that there is no defect,” Eric Booth wrote in an emailed statement.

“While Mazda has great sympathy for the injuries suffered by Mrs. Walters, and values the safety of all occupants of its vehicles, Mazda does not agree that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to support her allegation of defect.”

In a severe rollover accident involving a car with a soft top, “no reasonable person could expect a convertible to prevent injury in such a crash,” the statement read.

According to Walters’ lawsuit, she suffered severe physical, mental and emotional injuries and will require constant care for the rest of her life.

“She has a great spirit, and is as active as she can be,” Lichtenstein said.

Not only did the jury award the full $20 million sought by Walters’ lawyers, it also ordered that interest on the sum be paid from the date of the accident.

Assuming the verdict survives post-trial challenges, that would put the total amount at close to $30 million.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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