In 1995, 70-year old Marlene Fett pressed the wrong pedal on her Lincoln Town Car, and smashed into a carousel in front of an Arkansas Wal-Mart, killing one boy and severely injuring his brother. The Chapman family settled with Fett, and blamed Wal-Mart and Ford, Wal-Mart on a theory that it should have anticipated the possibility of a car hitting a merry-go-round at 30 mph, and Ford on that old plaintiffs’ lawyer claim of “sudden acceleration,” a “defect” that somehow is six times more likely to strike elderly drivers. The case made the front page of USA Today in 2004 (resulting in an Apr. 19, 2004 Overlawyered story), though the newspaper kindly noted the lack of science behind the claim:
Little Rock attorney Sandy McMath, who is representing the Chapmans, says the Town Car’s cruise control put Fett on a “rocket ship to Mars” after she pulled out of her parking place. He petitioned NHTSA to investigate what he says is a defect in Ford and Lincoln models’ cruise control that causes the accelerator to stick.
In a lengthy 1999 [sic] report denying McMath’s petition, NHTSA investigator Bob Young wrote that even if such an occurrence took place and didn’t leave evidence of a mechanical malfunction, the situation should be reproducible through in-vehicle and laboratory tests. None of NHTSA’s testing could do so.
The Wal-Mart theory was similarly bogus, and refuted when an expert demonstrated that the plaintiffs’ proposed safety measure wouldn’t have stopped the speeding car. (For Illinois’ take on premises liability for auto accidents: Jun. 23.) An Arkansas jury also rejected the claims, and, after years of litigation, now the Arkansas Supreme Court has affirmed that decision in a not-especially-interesting Dec. 14 opinion, Chapman v. Ford Motor Co. Wal-Mart and Ford are still out the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent defending themselves in the lottery litigation, not to mention the cost of bad publicity from sudden acceleration claims and quacks like the Center for Auto Safety trumpeting a non-existent problem. Arkansas acquits itself better than a South Carolina federal court did in a story we covered Aug. 7.