We were curious what happened to the case of Rose Marie Munoz v. Ford, the $29 million verdict against an auto manufacturer when a 10-year-old recalled Firestone tire failed and a passenger who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt was ejected. Our original post had provoked a response from the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Roger S. Braugh, Jr.
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Drunk driver William Timberlake, speeding at 60 mph, rear-ended the Ford Escort in which 46-year-old James Mikolajczyk was stopped at an intersection. Only 3% of fatalities occur in rear-end collisions, so Ford, like most car companies, designs its seat-backs to meet federal safety standards and provide additional protection in other types of collisions–with the unfortunate and unavoidable trade-off that the seat will not perform as well in a rear-end collision. Mikolajczyk’s ten-year-old daughter survived, but Mikolajczyk’s seat collapsed, his head hit the rear of the passenger compartment, and he never regained consciousness before dying three days later. A Cook County jury deliberated all of three hours before finding Ford 40% responsible. And because Ford was found more than 25% responsible, it is on the hook for the entire $27 million award, including $25 million in non-economic damages. Timberlake is in prison. Only the specialty legal press raised the issue of joint and several liability; the mainstream press didn’t even mention the 40/60 split in comparative fault. (Bill Myers, “$27 million verdict in fatal accident”, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Mar. 16 (via ICJL); Steve Patterson, “Ford, Mazda ordered to pay $27 million in death”, Chicago Sun-Times, Mar. 17; Chris Hack, “Carmakers to pay in SE Side crash”, Daily Southtown News, Mar. 17; Rafael Romo, “Jury Awards Millions In Fatal Crash Caused By Deffective [sic] Seat”, WBBM-2, Mar. 17; Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co., No. 00 L 3342 (Cook County, Ill.)). More seat-back litigation coverage on this site: Dec. 21; Nov. 24.
Bruce Pfaff, Mikolajczyk’s attorney, previously won a similar seat-back case from an Indiana accident where a cocaine-and-PCP-impaired driver, Kevin Gaczkowski, rear-ended and paralyzed the plaintiff, Lydia Carillo. Ford was found 30% liable (in part because the jury wasn’t told of Gaczkowski’s condition), and paid 100% of the $14.5 million verdict. Carillo v. Ford (Ill. App. 2001). In Carillo, a jury was told to decide whether a vehicle was unreasonably dangerous, but Ford wasn’t allowed to show the jury statistics on how the seatbacks performed in rear-impact collisions (even as the plaintff introduced anecdotal testimony from other paraplegics), or introduce testimony showing that the plaintiffs’ preferred seat-design would have also caused injury. It’s ludicrous enough to have a jury second-guess design decisions as part of a particular case without being forced to be consistent with other juries second-guessing how those same design decisions are operating in other circumstances. But it’s truly absurd to have a jury do this without access to the data of the costs and benefits, thus making the trial purely a game-show over the persuasiveness of hired experts.