The famously pro-plaintiff jurisdiction of Zavala County, Texas once again lived up to its reputation the other day when one of its juries returned a $31 million verdict against the Ford Motor Co. in the case of the rollover of a 2000 Explorer which killed two occupants and injured two others. Legal commentators around the web are abuzz about the most remarkable angle of the story, namely that until deep into the trial Ford did not learn that one of the jurors, Crystal City city manager Diana Palacios, was the girlfriend of Jesse Gamez, one of the lawyers on the team of plaintiff’s attorneys headed by Houston’s Mikal Watts. Ford also presented evidence that Palacios, incredibly, had actually solicited two of the crash victims for her boyfriend to represent. Nonetheless, Judge Amado Abascal refused to declare a mistrial, instead dismissing Palacios from the jury and issuing a supposedly curative instruction to the remaining jurors. David Bernstein, Tom Kirkendall and John Steele comment. (John MacCormack, “Juror’s relationship with lawyer stalls Ford trial”, San Antonio Express-News, Feb. 23). (Addendum: one of John Steele’s readers has drawn his attention to this 1997 Texas Supreme Court opinion which co-stars the very same Mr. Gamez and Ms. Palacios in a Norplant case — very curious stuff.)
The other issues raised by the verdict, however, deserve attention as well. The accident was caused by the speeding of the vehicle’s driver, and none of the four occupants was wearing a seat belt; all were ejected. Attorney Watts (Apr. 12-14, 2002) advanced the theory that the injuries were Ford’s fault because it should have used laminated instead of conventional glass in the side windows as a sort of substitute restraint system. (John MacCormack, “Zavala jurors hit Ford for $28 million”, San Antonio Express-News, Mar. 2). Notes the Detroit News:
Ford said laminated glass wouldn’t have kept the women from being ejected and was hardly ever used in side windows when the vehicle was made.
“At that time, 99.9 percent of all vehicles made by all manufacturers, through the 2000 model year, had the kind of tempered glass used in this vehicle,” Vokes said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t require laminated glass in side windows, she said.
(“Explorer suit costs Ford $31 million”, Detroit News, Mar. 3) AutoBlog has a short write-up with a good comments section; note in particular comment #22, on one possible safety advantage of not using laminated glass on cars’ sides. More: Mar. 22, May 13, May 16, May 29.