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Buell-Wilson v. Ford

We’ve been following Buell-Wilson v. Ford for some time, including the U.S. Supreme Court remand. Curt Cutting’s blog has the latest in two April posts here and here. Cal Biz Lit also has good commentary.

Buell-Wilson v. Ford redux

by Ted Frank on March 15, 2008

In February of last year, I wrote at length about an appalling jury verdict (June 2004) and disingenuous appellate decision in an SUV rollover case:

It went generally unnoticed last November when the California Supreme Court refused to review an intermediate court’s decision in Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Co. But then again, it went generally unnoticed when a jury awarded an arbitrary $368 million in damages in that case, when the trial judge reduced that verdict to an arbitrary $150 million judgment, and when an intermediate appellate court reduced that figure to an arbitrary $82.6 million (which, with interest, works out to over $100 million).

The US Supreme Court remanded to consider in light of Philip Morris v. Williams. For whatever reason, the California Court of Appeals decision to be even more disingenuous and say “We don’t care about Williams” reaffirming the $82.6 million got much more attention. Bruce Nye has the best analysis of the “thumb in your eye” decision; Lisa Perrochet also analyzes the verdict. John Rohan is critical. Press coverage: Recorder/Law.com; San Diego Union-Tribune; Reuters; AP/SJ Mercury News. Ford will appeal.

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And more May 17 updates

by Ted Frank on May 17, 2007

  • Google beats Perfect 10 in Ninth Circuit appeal over copyright suit over thumbnail images. (Earlier: Feb. 06, Jul. 05, Nov. 04.) [LA Times; WaPo; Bashman; Perfect 10 v. Amazon (9th Cir. 2007)]
  • Judge thinks better over Brent Coon’s attempt to intimidate local press through subpoenas. Earlier: Apr. 24. [WSJ Law Blog]
  • US Supreme Court throws out punitive damages ruling in Buell-Wilson case, lets rest of decision stand. Earlier: Jan. 4 and links therein. Beck and Herrmann also discussed the case in March in the context of a larger discussion of the appropriateness of issuing punitive damages against a company that relied on government safety standards in good faith. [LA Times; AP].
  • Big LA Times piece on the still-pending Extreme Makeover suit, where a family seeks to hold ABC responsible for an intra-household dispute over the spoils of a reality show. Earlier: Mar. 4, Aug. 12, 2005. [LA Times]
  • KFC may have won on trans-fats litigation, as David reported May 3, but they capitulate to Jerry Brown’s pursuit of Lockyer’s equally bogus acrylamide suit over the naturally-occurring chemical in potatoes (Oct. 05, Aug. 05, Aug. 05, May 05, Apr. 04, etc.). KFC will pay a nuisance settlement of $341,000 and will add a meaningless warning in California stores. (Tim Reiterman, “KFC to tell customers of chemical in potatoes”, LA Times Apr. 25).
  • McDonald’s sued over hot coffee. Again. One of the allegations is that McDonald’s failed to secure the lid, which is a legitimate negligence suit, but there’s also a bogus “failure to warn me that coffee is hot” count. [Southeast Texas Record; and a Southeast Texas Record op-ed that plainly read Overlawyered on the subject]

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Rollover Economics II

by Ted Frank on January 10, 2007

Justinian Lane responds to my recent Liability Outlook about the Buell-Wilson case (Jan. 4 and links therein). The PDF version has pretty typesetting and graphics in lieu of substance, though I question the choice of Futura (a sans serif typeface designed for display) as the font for the main text, as well as the use of oversized bullets.

I was especially impressed that Lane responded to my criticism of the inaccuracy of the court’s description of the case by quoting the court’s description of the case, and my criticism of California evidentiary rules by citing California evidentiary rules. Lane doesn’t explore the implications of his explicit contention that juries get it right only seven percent of the time, an even better argument for reform if it were true than the one I made. Ironically for a piece that purports to “set the record straight,” Lane has more misrepresentations of my argument and factual errors than I have time to spend counting.

To take a non-obvious one, Lane’s description of the Grimshaw case is incorrect (or at least poorly worded, depending on what he means by “backfired”): comparative evidence in that case showing that the Pinto was safer than other subcompacts and no more likely to explode was excluded over Ford’s objection. (In the famous case against Ford brought by state prosecutors over the Pinto, Ford was allowed to introduce that evidence, and an Indiana jury acquitted Ford.) I leave it to the error- and non-sequitur-seeking reader to peruse Lane’s other arguments, including the claim that the amount of the award against Ford is justified because Lee Raymond contracted with Exxon to receive stock options that, after the share price went up, turned out after the fact to be worth a lot of money.

But let’s give credit to Bizarro-Overlawyered for their new tack of acknowledging the existence of other arguments, even if they still can’t bring themselves to address them head-on or link to what they purport to be commenting on. Judge for yourself.

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My latest Liability Outlook for AEI is about the Ford Explorer rollover litigation and what it says about products liability litigation in the US in general:

It went generally unnoticed last November when the California Supreme Court refused to review an intermediate court’s decision in Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Co. But then again, it went generally unnoticed when a jury awarded an arbitrary $368 million in damages in that case, when the trial judge reduced that verdict to an arbitrary $150 million judgment, and when an intermediate appellate court reduced that figure to an arbitrary $82.6 million (which, with interest, works out to over $100 million). Products liability verdicts have become so run-of-the-mill that even nine-digit verdicts and their aftermath receive only local or specialty press coverage, with cursory national coverage. But Buell-Wilson demonstrates much that is wrong with the current liability regime, including the fact that the media is so jaded by litigation abuse that a $368 million verdict is barely newsworthy.

I have a related letter to the editor in the Jan. 1 Legal Times. See also POL Dec. 13, OL Dec. 12, OL Jun. 3, 2004.

Jackpot in San Diego

by Ted Frank on June 3, 2004

Drivers of the Ford Explorer have a lower fatality rate than drivers of other vehicles — and a lower fatality rate from rollovers than drivers of other SUVs. The NHTSA found that there was nothing wrong with the Explorer’s design after a spate of well-publicized accidents resulted in an investigation. Nevertheless, plaintiffs persist in filing lawsuits accusing the Explorer of being unreasonably dangerous. And one can see why: Ford has successfully defended the vehicle in at least ten consecutive jury cases, but on Wednesday a San Diego jury rewarded the latest roll of the dice with a $122.6 million verdict for a paraplegic plaintiff, Benetta Buell-Wilson. Ms. Buell-Wilson was driving at a high speed on Interstate 8, when the RV in front of her lost a large piece of metal; she lost control of the SUV when she swerved, and the vehicle went off the highway and flipped 4 times before landing on the roof. The jury returns today to deliberate the question of punitive damages. (Ray Huard, “$123 million awarded in SUV rollover”, San Diego Union-Tribune, Jun. 3; Myron Levin, “Jury Orders Ford to Pay $122.6 Million”, LA Times, Jun. 3) (via Bashman). “This was an extremely severe crash, and any SUV would have reacted in the same way under similar circumstances,” Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said. “Our concern goes out to Ms. Buell-Wilson and her family, but this tragic accident was caused by a combination of high speed and a large metal obstruction in the road.” (“Verdict ends Ford streak”, Detroit News, Jun. 3). Ford says it will appeal; the jury awarded four times more than what plaintiffs asked for.

Update: Jury awards $246 million in punitive damages. Ford protests that it wasn’t allowed to introduce evidence to the jury comparing the safety record of the Explorer to other SUVs. (Reuters, Jun. 3; Myron Levin, “Jury Adds Punitive Award in Ford Case”, LA Times, Jun. 4).

Update: Judge reduces damages to $150 million; Ford has appealed. (Michelle Morgante, AP, Aug. 19; Nora Lockwood Tooher, “Explorer Rollover Yields $368.6 Million Verdict”, Lawyers Weekly USA, Dec. 30).

As with all my posts, I speak for myself and not my firm or any of my firm’s clients (which include Ford).

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