Tuesday, May 15, 2007
U.S. High Court Orders C.A. to Review Award in Auto Rollover Case
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday ordered California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal to review a decision giving $82.6 million to a woman who was paralyzed after her Ford Explorer rolled over.
The justices directed that the decision be reviewed in light of Philip Morris USA v. Williams, which was decided earlier this year and overturned a $79.5 punitive damages award. The court said there that a jury may punish a defendant only for the harm done to the person who is suing, not to others whose cases were not before it.
The award, as modified by the Court of Appeal, included $55 million in punitive damages. A San Diego Superior Court jury originally awarded more than $368 million, which the trial judge cut to about $149.5 million.
The plaintiffs, Benetta Buell-Wilson, who was driving the Explorer, and her husband, Barry S. Wilson, a San Diego-based partner in Foley & Lardner LLP, contended that Ford’s deliberate production of a defectively designed car caused Benetta Buell-Wilson’s injuries.
On Jan. 19, 2002, Wilson was driving her Explorer along Interstate 8 in San Diego County when, as she swerved to avoid a metal object that was bouncing directly toward her windshield, the Explorer fishtailed out of control and rolled over multiple times.
As the car rolled, its roof collapsed nearly a foot into the passenger compartment, crushing down on Wilson’s shoulder with 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of force that pulverized and severed part of her spine. The impact also fractured her bones, cut her spleen, and dislocated her knees, and resulted in permanent disfigurement.
Wilson’s spinal injuries rendered her a paraplegic, suffering constant pain treatable only temporarily with medication—ending her once active lifestyle that had included practicing high-level martial arts, camping, hiking, dancing, and traveling. Although metal screws and rods inserted into her back helped to stabilize her upper body, she became totally dependent on her family for personal care and almost every other aspect of her life.
Wilson filed a design defect lawsuit against Ford alleging that it knowingly defectively designed the Explorer by making it dangerously unstable and prone to rollover, and inadequately supporting its roof so that it would readily crush into the passenger compartment in a foreseeable rollover.
Wilson’s husband sued for loss of consortium.
At trial, the Wilsons claimed Ford’s management decided to go forward with manufacturing the Explorer for business reasons despite repeated warnings and advice by its engineers.
After hearing the evidence—from which San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin A. Enright excluded Ford’s expert testimony regarding the Explorer’s safety record and rollover rate as compared with other similar vehicles—the jury found that the Explorer had stability and roof defects that caused Wilson’s injuries, and awarded her approximately $4.5 million for economic losses and $105 million for noneconomic losses. It also awarded Barry Wilson $13 million for loss of consortium.
Additionally, the jury found by clear and convincing evidence that Ford acted with oppression, fraud or malice in deliberately causing the design defects, and awarded her $246 million in punitive damages.
Enright remitted Wilson’s noneconomic damages to approximately $65 million and her husband’s damages to $5 million, and reduced the punitive damage amount to $75 million.
While concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury verdict as to liability, the appellate panel reduced the damages, saying the jury had allowed “passion or prejudice” to override its judgment as to what was “fair, just and reasonable.”
As to punitive damages, though, the panel concluded that a $55 million award was reasonable in light of the compensatory damages.
“[A] two-to-one ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages is sufficient to punish Ford and deter it from similar conduct in the future,” Nares wrote. “This ratio is proportionate to the degree of harm suffered and the substantial award of compensatory damages. An award exceeding a two-to-one ratio would exceed the constitutional maximum that could be awarded under the facts of this case.”
The Wilsons’ appellate counsel, San Francisco attorney Jerome B. Falk Jr., told the MetNews at the time that he was pleased with the result as a whole, which would give the Wilson’s a total more than $100 million with interest, but felt the court should have allowed a higher ratio of punitive damages because “Ford’s conduct was reprehensible and they were a repeat offender.”
Ford’s legal team, led by Theodore Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a former solicitor general, asked the court to take the case because it said Ford was being punished even though the design of the vehicle met federal safety standards.
The case is Ford Motor Company v. Buell-Wilson, 06-1068.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company