In a move yet again to restrain large verdicts that punish companies, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday set aside a San Diego jury’s $55 Million award against Ford Motor Co. for a rollover accident involving its popular Explorer sport utility vehicle, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.
The justices ordered a California appeals court to reconsider punitive damages awarded in the case of a 51-year-old mother of two who was paralyzed after her Explorer rolled over in 2002. This ruling will not affect the $27.6 million awarded to her in compensatory damages, which basically compensate victims for wrongful injuries. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are meant as a punishment to penalize the offenders, in this case, the auto maker. The high court, since the 1990s, has tried to rein in on unrestrained punitive verdicts because they believe such verdicts may violate the constitution, the Times article said.
After losing in the California courts, Ford’s lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that the jury in San Diego might have jacked up the punitive damages as a knee-jerk reaction to hearing that hundreds of people had been injured or killed in rollover accidents involving Ford Broncos or Explorers. The Supreme Court apparently bought that argument and decided to send the Ford case back to the California court for further consideration. A lawyer for the accident victim told the Times that the verdict was based on strong evidence that Ford “had sacrificed safety for profit.”
The injuries suffered by Benetta Buell-Wilson seem to be “classic Ford Explorer rollover.” She was driving at a normal speed on the 8 East Freeway in San Diego when she swerved to avoid a metal object on the roadway. Her 1997 Explorer reportedly fishtailed and rolled over four times crushing the roof and causing Buell-Wilson severe spinal injury and paralysis. Before her trial in San Diego, Ford had won 13 times in trials where plaintiffs had made similar allegations, the Times article said. But in June 2004, the jury in Buell-Wilson’s case socked Ford with a $368.6-million verdict. About a third was to compensate her and her husband for their injuries, including emotional suffering. The rest — $246 million — was intended to punish Ford for reprehensible conduct.
The verdict has since been reduced twice, first by the trial judge and later by a state appeals court in San Diego. The compensatory damages for Buell-Wilson and her family were reduced to $27.6 million and the punitive damages to $55 million last year. Now, the state appeals court in San Diego must decide whether to further reduce the punitive amount.
We believe that this family deserved every dollar that was awarded to them by the jury. Ford deserves no consideration on this matter. At Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys, we have represented numerous victims of Explorer rollover crashes, who have either been seriously injured or have died as a result of the crash. In addition, we have found that many Ford Explorer SUV models, especially those from 1999 to 2001 model years, do not meet a crucial safety requirement intended to protect passengers in rollover crashes. We’ve found that the SUV’s lack of stability causes it to tip over. Also, the roof is so flimsy that it crushes on impact sandwiching the person inside the vehicle between the seat and the roof, causing his or her spine to snap. These facts were further validated by a safety engineering firm we regularly call upon as expert witnesses in our Ford and SUV rollover cases.
We don’t think for a second that Ford’s engineers and designers are oblivious to these facts. They know very well and have known for years that small changes in vehicle design can save lives. But they’ve withheld making those changes because it would cost them more money. They are clearly sacrificing safety for profit. We sincerely hope that the California court upholds the punitive damages in this San Diego rollover case, so auto makers such as Ford will actually be motivated to make their vehicle safer, if only to avoid these expensive lawsuits.
If you or a loved one has suffered injuries as a result of a Ford Explorer rollover or any other auto accident, please call us for a free consultation. If you know of other vehicles with similar problems, please tell us. We would love to hear from you. Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys – 800-259-6373.