A father and mother who lost their son due to air bag fraud have been awarded a $15 million dollar verdict against the owner of an auto body shop.
Although they'll only collect a fraction of that verdict, father Bobby Ellsworth is elated by the verdict, announced Monday.
It's a story first exposed by the 10News I-Team last February.
Air bags are supposed to deploy in a crash and save lives. That is what should've happened for 18 year old Bobby Ellsworth of Jamul.
"No parent ever wants their children to go before them in this life, especially how quickly it happened. There was no time for goodbyes," says Robert Ellsworth, the young man's father.
Five and a half years ago, the younger Ellsworth died when the 1998 Dodge truck he was riding in crashed on Dehesa Road. The air bags were missing.
"Unfortunately I think it's very common," points out Julia Haus, attorney for the Ellsworth family.
Instead of air bags, the compartments in the steering wheel of the Dodge had been stuffed with paper and glued shut by Arnold Parra, the owner of an auto body shop in Los Angeles.
On the stand, Parra admitted he had no paperwork that detailed the work he performed on the truck or the parts he used. When 10News I-Team first tried to talk to Parra last February, he led reporter Lauren Reynolds around and around in a chase, literally running from her.
But justice caught up with him. Sued for fraud, his deadly scam was exposed. He showed no remorse.
"At one point he said that he didn't care if there were airbags in this vehicle or not, and we were just out of breath and in total disbelief," says Ellsworth.
Parra purchased the Dodge from an auction in North Hollywood where insurance companies unload cars considered wrecked. It had a salvage title because of a previous accident where the original air bags had deployed.
The truck needed about $10,000 dollars in repairs according to the insurance estimates, including the new air bags.
Parra said in a deposition he spent about $600 on parts and another $600 on labor before selling the truck to a family friend. He claimed he never touched the air bags. The jury did not believe him.
According to Haus, "There are a lot of people out there buying these vehicles at auctions, cutting corners, and then selling them as if in new condition."
It's a hidden scam because there is no easy way for the average person to tell whether air bags are real or fake, and shady dealers and backyard builders are taking advantage of that fact.
In this case, it's believed Parra went so far as to disable the air bag warning light on the dash board.
"Our loved ones are at risk driving these salvage vehicles when you don't know what they're safety equipment is," points out Ellsworth.
Under California Law, re-built and salvage cars must have air bags in good working order. However, the I-Team has not found a single prosecution of someone for tampering or installing fake air bags.
And there are more salvage vehicles on the roads, especially in California, where estimates are as high as two and a half million salvage vehicles being driven.
Haus says the verdict "speaks loudly and clearly that we will not permit this to ever happen again."
Only a fraction of the landmark $15 million dollar verdict will be collected from Parra. It's believed he owns some properties as well as his business. The verdict does not bring Bobby Ellsworth back. But it does send a message.
"It just says to the public that this is so outrageous of an act that shouldn't happen again."
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