$6.5 million to driver not wearing seatbelt

by Ted Frank on February 15, 2008

Ruben Zamora lost control of his Ford Explorer after a tread-tire separation, causing a rollover; because he was not wearing his seatbelt, he was ejected from the vehicle and suffered brain injuries. (His four passengers suffered only minor injuries.) This is, a LaSalle County, Texas state court jury decided, 65% the fault of Ford, putting them on the hook for $6.5 million in damages. Ford denies responsibility and will appeal. (Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Ford Loses $6.5 Million Verdict in Explorer Rollover”, Bloomberg, Feb. 4; “Auto news headlines,” Detroit Free Press, Feb. 5; Nick Sullivan, “Brain-Injured Man Awarded $6.5M in Texas Rollover Case”, Andrews Publications, Feb. 11). Until a 2003 tort reform, Ford would not even have been allowed to introduce evidence that Zamora was not wearing his seat belt.

{ 10 comments }

1 Joseph Bingham 02.15.08 at 8:11 pm

What was that (2003) reform?

It struck existing Texas law barring the admission into evidence the failure to wear a seatbelt. Many states continue to have such laws on the books. — TF

2 Joe Bingham 02.15.08 at 8:56 pm

ZOMG you just typed into my comment. /gasp

On a more serious note, it’s incredible in the true sense of the word that there would be a law specifically barring that fact from evidence. Holy cow. What would Ralph Nader say?

3 William Nuesslein 02.16.08 at 10:26 am

Good Grief! Tire separation can not cause a rollover. It is first year physics. The Explorer has a higher center of gravity and it, along with competing SUV’s, should not be driven like Corvettes.
It is not surprising that a driver who can’t understand would not understand seat belts. And it is not surprising that an American Jury would not understand anything at all!

4 Steve Hogan 02.17.08 at 9:29 pm

So Ford Motor Co. is now responsible for checking the tire condition for all the cars and trucks sold to millions of customers every time they climb behind the wheel? And buckle them in too? Maybe they should wipe their noses and tell them bedtime stories too.

Sheesh, is the jury comprised of morons?

5 Commentor 02.18.08 at 11:15 am

IMHO, Juries tend to be pretty smart. I’d guess that in this case some pretty questionable expert testimony was allowed in.

6 Jason Barney 02.18.08 at 8:08 pm

‘Commentor’ – many juries get it right, but this case was venued in Southwest Texas, whose jurors are notoriously pro-plaintiff–to the point of a fault.

I’m not saying they’re not smart, but they often come to verdicts and awards I simply shake my head at.

7 William Nuesslein 02.19.08 at 5:26 am

Mr. Barney,

There was a study a few years ago that Medical Malpractice cases were wrongly decided 80% of the time. How do you know that many juries get it right? And if this case is not glaring stupidity, then what would be?

8 Ted 02.19.08 at 7:32 am

Mr. Nuesslein:

Do you have a cite for that study? I’d be interested in seeing it. The only recent study I know of is an old Harvard study of a fairly small sample that found juries getting it right in med-mal cases at rates slightly better than a coin-flip, though Professor Baker has been critical of that study.

We don’t know whether this case is one of glaring stupidity by the jury, of racially or class-based motive to transfer wealth to a local resident in one of the poorest counties in the US, or a South Texas judge slanting proceedings so that a defendant out-of-state corporation can’t get a fair trial. Without knowing more, it’s also possible that Ford’s attorney had a fair chance to win, but underperformed in the trial-performance game-show.

9 Jason Barney 02.19.08 at 6:46 pm

Mr. Nuesslein:

Many juries/jurors do get it right, when they are well-educated, disinterested and really pay attention to the proceedings. I’ve sat parts of various jury trials here in Seattle and believe the jurors get it right most of the time. We have pretty good jurors, who are generally skeptical of others coming to them asking for money.

I do believe some problems creep in when the judge allows or disallows certain evidence and/or crafts the jury instructions in a way to guide the jury to a nearly certain (and sometimes unjust) result. Such shenanigans do not necessarily reflect poorly on jurors, who are obligated to consider only the facts and law introduced by the gatekeeper/judge and render their decision accordingly.

I’ve managed cases in other venues, including Southwest Texas, Bronx/Kings, NY, Saint Louis County, MO and I would agree: you have some real knuckleheads there, and the greater public is not well-served by jury trials in those venues. Take common sense, a sense of justness and moderation and throw it out the window. Defendants, especially corporate defendants, simply cannot in most instances obtain just results there.

10 William Nuesslein 02.20.08 at 9:24 am

Ted,

I got the 80% number from a post on overlawyers.com. I wrote to Walter Olsen about it. We would never tolerate getting spoiled milk 80% of the time. That was before overlawyers.com had a comment mechanism. I tried to find the post and study, but I failed.

You suggested several alternatives to “glaring stupidity”. But your alternatives require a jury that does not understand its duty, especially the “game show”.

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