So Crystal Bear of Rice, Wash., who’d won $6 million from her sister in a crash lawsuit, settled for the $200,000 insurance policy limits instead. Co-defendant Ford Motor Company had also been targeted in the case, which arose from a Bronco rollover, but it got off with a defense verdict. (Matthew Heller, On Point News).
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.
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).