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SUVs

Update: Branham v. Ford

by Ted Frank on August 19, 2010

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)

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November 26 roundup

by Walter Olson on November 26, 2007

All-automotive edition:

  • Court won’t unseal settlement arising from $105 million Aramark/Giants Stadium dramshop case for fear girl’s father will try to get his hands on money [NJLJ, NorthJersey.com, Childs; earlier]
  • Great moments in insurance defense law: you mean it wasn’t a good idea to infiltrate that church meeting to investigate the crash claim? [Turkewitz first, second posts]
  • Columnist Paul Mulshine rejoices: Ninth Circuit decision “if it stands, will lead to the end of the SUV as we know it” [Newark Star-Ledger]
  • Is it unfair — and should it be unlawful? — for insurers to settle crash victims’ claims too early? [Maryland Injury Lawyer Blog]
  • If Ron Krist prevails in shoot-out of Texas plaintiff titans, he vows to have sheriff seize John O’Quinn’s Batmobile [American Lawyer; see also Ted's take earlier]
  • In much-watched case, Australian high court by 3-2 split upholds highway authority against claim defective bridge design was blameworthy after youth’s dive into shallow water [RTA NSW v. Dederer, Aug. 30]
  • Redesigning Toyota’s occupant restraint system? Clearly another job for the Marshall, Texas courts [SE Texas Record; Point of Law; more]
  • Bench trial results in $55 million verdict against U.S. government after Army employee on business runs red light and paralyzes small child [OC Register]
  • Vision in a purple Gremlin: her Yale Law days shaped Hillary in many ways [Stearns/McClatchy]
  • Zero tolerance for motorists’ blood-alcohol — are we sure we want to go there? [Harsanyi, Reason]
  • Driver falls asleep, so of course Ford must pay [two years ago on Overlawyered; much more on our automotive page]

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The Ford Explorer is a sport utility vehicle. Judge Roy Pearson, excited by the $67 million he anticipates receiving for his pants, is bringing a lawsuit in California claiming that every California Explorer owner is entitled a total of $2 billion from Ford because the Explorer is allegedly prone to rolling over, using the California version of the law that Pearson is bringing his pants-suit over. Note that the damages are not for an actual rollover, just damages because of the “fraud” that the vehicle might roll over, though at least some models of the Explorer are in fact less dangerous than an average SUV in rollovers, and safer than the average vehicle in other types of accidents. (IIHS reports that the average fatality rate for mid-sized 2-door SUVs is 63 per million vehicles, and the average fatality rate for the 2-door Ford Explorer is 49 per million vehicles—and that latter number includes crashes caused by defective Firestone tires. Note that this is publicly available information: where is the fraud?)

Oh, sorry, it’s not Roy Pearson, it’s Arkansas attorney Tab Turner who is bringing the lawsuit. [Hudson Sangree, "SUV rollovers put Ford's future in judge's hands", Sacramento Bee, May 24; official class notice from Sacramento County Court]

But because ATLA and Kia Franklin have condemned Roy Pearson’s lawsuit as a frivolous abuse of justice, I am sure that they will have no compunction against issuing the same criticism against millionaire trial lawyer Tab Turner for bringing a much larger and socially harmful lawsuit that might bankrupt Ford on the same bogus “consumer fraud” legal theory that Pearson used. Of course, there’s a difference between Pearson and Turner: Turner is asking for more money, and his claim has less factual basis.

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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.

SUV suits follow-up

by Ted Frank on December 13, 2006

Some follow-up observations about the Ford Bronco $31 million verdict post.

1. South Carolina is one of the few states that has the pure form of the doctrine of “joint and several liability”, under which any deep-pocket defendant is 100% liable even if they’re only found 1% at fault. Thirty-seven states have enacted some limits on this, but South Carolina has not. Such a legal system creates incentives to find the deepest pocket and attach a shred of fault to them so that they are held entirely responsible for the consequences of others.

2. I’ve read several plaintiffs’ briefs arguing for upholding similar verdicts, as well as submissions made to NHTSA arguing that certain vehicles are “too prone” to roll over. They essentially come down to requests to ban SUVs: every SUV faces accusations of being “too prone to roll over.”

SUVs are designed to have high clearance to traverse rugged terrain. This raises the center of gravity and affects the handling: it’s a known tradeoff of the laws of physics. There are a wide variety of tests of varying degrees of scientific merit one can use to suggest a vehicle is “too prone” to roll over, and plaintiffs have the benefit of cherry-picking which tests to apply to which vehicles. You’ll find lots of lawyers complaining that the Bronco II allegedly responded poorly in “J-turn tests”, where the steering wheel is turned 330 degrees in one third of a second and held there for another 4.67 seconds. Ford designed the Explorer to pass the J-turn test to take away this claim, and the trial lawyers started using different methodologies to claim that the Explorer was too prone to roll over.

Empirically, however, the Bronco doesn’t roll over more than several other SUVs on the market, which is why NHTSA, in both the Bush I and Clinton administrations, refused to recall the Bronco when the plaintiffs’ bar asked it to. When I say Ford was held liable for producing an SUV, I’m not spinning: it was because it was held liable for producing an SUV.

Moreover, a vehicle should be viewed in totality: an auto that is more likely to roll over may be safer in other particulars that more than compensate for that increased propensity. So I question the premise. One can’t change the rollover propensity without creating a different vehicle entirely. The vehicle should be viewed holistically, and holistically, the Bronco is a safe car when used as designed.

Perhaps we as a society would be better off taking the nanny-state step of banning SUVs, forbidding people from wildnerness driving because too many drivers don’t know how to drive SUVs in highway conditions, but that’s a decision that not only would end the American auto industry, but should be made other than by a 12-person jury of laypeople. This vehicle rolled over because the driver drove off the road.

3. The ultimate cost is borne not by Ford, but by the rest of us: lawsuits like this add $500 to the price of every American car. You and I can’t go to the car manufacturer and get a cheaper car by promising not to be as stupid a driver as this one was. So careful drivers are subsidizing careless ones.

4. It’s unlikely that the $500 applies equally to expensive and cheap cars, but not in the manner you think: (1) the less expensive car is more likely to be driven longer and more often and with more carpooling passengers; (2) less likely to have expensive top-of-the-line safety features that haven’t yet become standard and thus more likely to be sued over the lack of those features; and (3) more likely to be sold in such a volume that trial lawyers have put together a cheap package targeting the vehicle for lawsuit in the hopes of achieving economies of scale by targeting a lot of potential plaintiffs. (There will never be a mass tort for a Rolls Royce, for example—not enough of them are sold.) Note that the plaintiffs’ bar puts profits before people: they look at the costs and benefits of bringing suit, and target the most profitable vehicles to sue over, rather than the most dangerous ones, which is why the Ford Pinto is notorious and the VW Beetle (whose designers were so inconsiderate to write their memos in German instead of cheap-to-analyze English), which killed people at a much higher rate, is remembered with fond nostalgia.

So average liability is, if anything, higher for cheap cars than expensive cars; the $500 figure (which comes directly from the president of Chrysler) is probably higher for cheap cars and lower for expensive cars, and perhaps close to zero for the Rolls.

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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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Reviewing Adam Penenberg’s newly published book Tragic Indifference: One Man’s Battle with the Auto Industry Over the Dangers of SUVs, which recounts the Firestone tire/Ford Explorer imbroglio mostly from the standpoint of plaintiff’s attorney Tab Turner, FindLaw reviewer Matt Herrington (Oct. 10) writes that the book “provides an interesting view of the interrelationships between the plaintiffs’ bar, the expert and consumer advocacy industries, and corporate America” but is “painfully, almost comically, one sided”: “anyone who helps the plaintiffs is a hero” while “anyone who raises any obstacle to their quest for justice must be evil”. The result? “Even bad behavior, if it helps the plaintiffs, is depicted as heroism. For example, Penenberg describes how two experts who make their livings as critics of the auto industry obtained a purportedly ‘suppressed’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of uncertain provenance; they believe the study contradicted NHTSA’s public statements. But they got the study ‘through the mail’ — it was not an official document, it had no provenance — it was not, and here is the key point, admissible evidence. This technicality is resolved through trickery that is at least unethical, and likely illegal too. Penenberg reports that one of the experts ‘stashed the analysis in one of the [NHTSA] dockets concerning rollovers and then went off for lunch. When he returned, [he] informed a clerk he needed a certified copy of the report, and described where to find it. A couple hours later [he] got it back complete with NHTSA’s official seal and tied with a blue ribbon.’

“That’s not a cute story. Not even close. It’s a story of an ethical violation, a lie to the government, and a confidentiality breach.”