“Every time we go to hire an attorney to defend a lawsuit, as soon as we say ‘Ford Explorer,’ they charge us more money,” explains a company spokeswoman. Today’s Explorer is based on a design entirely different from the model that attracted rollover litigation in the 1990s, which doesn’t seem to matter. [Edward Niedermeyer, Truth About Cars]
In 2006, I wrote:
In May 2001, Cheryl Jane Hale was driving four children to a sleepover in her 1987 Ford Bronco. She didn’t bother to have the children wear their seat belts, so, when she took her eyes off the road to argue with the backseat passengers, and thus drove off the road and flipped the car, 12-year-old Jesse Branham was thrown from the car and suffered brain damage. A jury in Hampton County, South Carolina (the second jury to be impaneled—the first one was dismissed in a mistrial when it was discovered after two weeks of trial that five of the jurors were former clients of Branham’s lawyers) decided that this was only 45% Hale’s fault, held Ford 55% responsible, which puts Ford entirely on the hook for $31 million in damages.
On Monday, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed because of prejudicial closing arguments that relied heavily on inadmissible evidence. More importantly for lawyers practicing in South Carolina, the Court adopted “the risk-utility test with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design.”
How bad of a judicial hellhole is Hampton County? Though Hale was a co-defendant, she cooperated with the plaintiffs throughout the trial in their case against Ford, even sitting at the plaintiffs’ table; but because the judge classified Hale as a co-defendant, it meant that Hale got half of the peremptory challenges of the “defense.” More from Comer; no press coverage that I’ve seen yet. (cross-posted from Point of Law)
And in timely news, a specious $18M sudden acceleration verdict (see our August 2006 coverage) was unanimously reversed by the South Carolina Supreme Court after they threw out junk-science testimony theorizing that electromagnetic interference with the cruise control caused the sudden acceleration. Passengers in the crash that wore their seatbelts were uninjured, but the unbelted driver was paralyzed. The plaintiff has the option of a new trial. (Sonya Watson v. Ford Motor Company, h/t L Nettles comment).
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.
State laws providing a kind of tenure protection for no-longer-needed car dealers are among the reasons it can be extremely expensive to close down a failing marque. General Motors, which closed Oldsmobile eight years ago, “spent more than five years battling dealer lawsuits” despite having set aside almost $1 billion to handle the transition, and Ford may face similar challenges if it tries to shutter its ailing Mercury line. (Martin Zimmerman, “Mercury may be coming to the end of the road”, Los Angeles Times, May 10). Earlier: Oct. 5, 2006. For more see this 2001 speech by FTC commissioner Thomas Leary, and this article by Missouri lawyer Gene Brockland on the federal Auto Dealers’ Day in Court Act, which is exceeded in stringency by some of its counterpart laws at the state level.
“A Washington state woman who sued Ford Motor over her injuries in an SUV rollover accident isn’t exactly thrilled that a jury cleared the automaker — and awarded her $6 million in damages against her sister, who was the driver of the vehicle. … The federal jury in Spokane, Wash., found Marla Bear 100 percent at fault for losing control of the SUV, in which her younger sister was a passenger. According to trial testimony, the car swerved when she looked over her shoulder to see if Crystal had her seat belt attached.” Ford’s own attorney, whether for tactical reasons of sympathy or otherwise, had advised the jury against blaming the sister. (Matthew Heller, OnPoint News, Mar. 20) (via The Briefcase).
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.
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.
Initial reports had it that the car company’s lawyers were objecting to fans’ putting out a calendar adorned with pictures they’d taken themselves of their beloved Mustangs. Later, the company said it was fine with the fans’ publishing the photos and calendars so long as they didn’t use the Ford logo. (AdRants, Jan. 14; Culture Garage, Jan. 11).
Three cases of catastrophic injury to children, three defendants asked to pay:
- Freak accident in school parking lot “foreseeable”. According to a Los Angeles jury, it was reasonably foreseeable that an ailing parent driving a disability-converted van with hand-controlled accelerator and brakes would lose control of her vehicle and jump the curb at full speed, killing first-grader Jordan Sandels in the company of her father at Encino’s Lanai Road Elementary School in 2005. Aside from the many and baffling supposed lessons of the resulting $10 million verdict for school grounds planners (always build lots big enough that parents won’t have to park off-site?), a highlight was the jury’s finding that the parent behind the wheel was only 20 percent to blame and shouldn’t have to pay anything [LA Times via Handel on the Law]
- Destroy evidence, then win $41 million from second defendant. Joseph Provenza, 13, was catastrophically burned in 2001 when he “jumped a 15-year-old Yamaha motorcycle resulting in a crash and post-crash fire” [Bowman & Brooke summary] The plaintiff’s father, himself a plaintiff in the suit, later admitted that he willfully removed and discarded a bypass wire from the motorcycle before Yamaha’s investigators could see it because he thought the evidence of modification might interfere with his son’s lawsuit, and either he or members of the legal team removed or modified other relevant equipment on the vehicle. A judge dismissed the claims against Yamaha, citing willful and pervasive spoliation of evidence as well as lack of candor in discovery responses on the issue. The family then proceeded to trial against a Wisconsin clothing manufacturer which it argued should have made its garments flame-retardant because they were promoted for use with motorcycles, although federal law did not and does not require flame retardance in such garments. The jury awarded $41 million; a defense lawyer says the jurors were never allowed to learn about the hot-wire modification, though it was the cause of the accident, or the subsequent spoliation. [Las Vegas Review-Journal, Janesville (Wis.) Gazette; Carcione law firm (also of Romo v. Ford Motor fame)]. More: BrooklynWolf.
- Schools sometimes responsible for injuries after school hours.The South Main Street Elementary School in Pleasantville, N.J. had long preannounced a 1:30 p.m. early dismissal on a certain day in 2001. Third-grader Joseph Jerkins was allowed to leave, in accord with school policy for youngsters whose families had not requested that they be released only into adult custody. Two hours and twenty minutes later, while playing with a friend, Joseph ran into the street and was struck by a car and horribly injured. The family said it had not been adequately informed of the early dismissal. A trial court dismissed the suit, but the New Jersey Supreme Court, announcing a new duty of care for school districts, ruled that the family could sue on the grounds that the school’s policies should have restrained the boy from leaving. The district settled for $6 million. [AP/Philly.com; NJ Principals and Supervisors Association]
Our first installment of stories from 2007 that merited coverage but slipped away is here
The newspaper reprinted my warning labels column yesterday (Walter Olson, “Product labels have come unglued from reality”, Mar. 25). Reader Gary Neyens of Round Rock, Tex. wrote in to say he enjoyed the piece and added one of his own favorite stories:
I recently replaced the serpentine (fan) belt on my Ford pickup. The Ford Motorcraft packaging warned “Shut off engine before checking or replacing belt”. I know the reason for this warning – - Somebody, somewhere…
While on the subject of publicity, Legal NewsLine did a whole article (with file photo!) based on my recent column about not counting the trial lawyers out (Rob Luke, Anti-business suits still surging, warns tort-reform expert”, Mar. 21). Last month New York Post reporter Janon Fisher quoted me in an article on the “firefighter’s rule” which historically has barred injured public rescue personnel from suing the people they were rescuing, or others whose negligence allegedly led to disaster (“Firemen file arson lawsuits”, Feb. 2). And a couple of publicity clips from last year that I didn’t round up at the time: at the North County Times’ The Californian, Bridgit Jordan quotes me on Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-tobacco philanthropy (“Donation may go up in smoke”, Aug. 22); and Joseph Goldstein of the New York Sun quotes me in an illuminating article about the “creeping oversight” of New York City government operations obtained by the feds through consent decrees and the like (“Bush Administration, in Series of Federal Lawsuits Against New York Agencies, Gains Creeping Oversight of Local Government”, Aug. 15).