US:Ford must pay $4 million in rollover suit
Ford must pay $4 million in rollover suit
Former Ford employee said company didn't make recommended design changes.
By Margaret Cronin Fisk / Bloomberg News
Ford Motor Co. should pay $3.25 million to the family of a woman killed when the Explorer sport utility vehicle she was driving flipped over in an accident, a South Carolina jury found.
Erika Hayward, 26, was ejected from the vehicle in the April 2000 accident. The jury awarded her family and three passengers $3.95 million in actual damages Oct. 13, finding the Explorer defective. On Monday, jurors couldn't reach a verdict on punitive damages, and U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy declared a mistrial on that issue.
The Hayward suit is one of several hundred facing Ford over claims of defects after Explorer rollovers. Attorneys for the Hayward family said the company knew the vehicle was prone to rolling over and failed to warn or protect customers.
"As far back as 1989, Ford Motor Company knew that this Explorer had rollover problems," Ed Bell, the Hayward family's lawyer, told jurors in Charleston, S.C. "Ford knew of potentially fatal defects during the development and manufacture of this vehicle and chose not to remedy them."
Hayward's family said she lost control of the SUV because it is inherently unstable. They also claimed defects in the Explorer's roof and window glass. The jury awarded $700,000 to three passengers in the vehicle as well as the family.
Ford said it wasn't responsible for Hayward's death and will ask for a mistrial on the entire verdict.
"The jury's inability to reach a decision on the issue of punitive damages is not surprising given the Explorer's solid safety record and the fact that Ford has won an overwhelming majority of its Explorer trials." Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said. "The jury's indecision casts doubt on the entire result."
The trial judge will determine whether the entire case or just the punitive damages portion will be retried, said Bell, of the James Edward Bell III Law Offices in Georgetown, S.C.
Hayward was driving the rented 2000 Explorer on Interstate 95 in South Carolina when she lost control of the vehicle and it flipped over, Bell said in the trial. The roof crumpled; the side window shattered; and Hayward flew out of the broken window, he said.
The family's lawyers argued that the Explorer roof was too weak to withstand a rollover and the side window should have had laminated instead of tempered glass.
Laminated glass, in which plastic is sandwiched between layers of glass, would have kept her in the vehicle, Bell told jurors. He said Hayward was wearing her seat belt.
Ford wasn't responsible for the accident or the injuries, Vokes said.
"This tragedy was caused by driver inattention, excessive speed, and the occupants' failure to wear the seat belts," she said by e-mail. Laminated glass wouldn't have protected Hayward, she said.
"Plaintiffs' alternative design did not exist on a single vehicle in 2000 and, in this accident, would not have kept the unbelted occupants inside the vehicle," Vokes said. "No other SUV in 2000 would have performed any better in this accident."
Attorneys for the Hayward family said Ford ignored warnings from its own engineers that the Explorer needed design changes to improve stability before it was first sold in 1990.
In a videotaped deposition played to the Hayward jury, the project manager for the first Explorers, Roger Simpson, said the company didn't make some recommended design changes partly because they would have delayed the launch of the Explorer and postponed Ford's return on a $500 million investment.
In the trial, Bell said internal memos warned that the vehicle could flip over if it used a larger tire than one approved by the company's engineers. Ford's marketing department pressured the company into using larger tires on Explorers because they looked more "rugged," Bell told jurors. The Explorer Hayward was driving had the larger tire, he said.
Bell argued that Ford's failure to change the earlier Explorers met the court's standard for punitive damages, which requires clear and convincing evidence of intentional harm or reckless disregard of a plaintiff's rights.
Ford attorney Alan Thomas said in the trial that Ford made engineering decisions in good faith and didn't deserve punishment. Documents and depositions used in the trial showed there was a debate at Ford about engineering choices, not an intent to ignore safety, he said.
"We trust this vehicle with our children, our spouses," Thomas, of Huie Fernambucq & Stewart in Birmingham, Ala., told the jury Monday.
The verdict is the fifth against Ford in an Explorer rollover lawsuit. The company won the first 13 to go to trial before losing a $369 million jury verdict in San Diego in June 2004. The company has won several Explorer rollover cases this year, including one last month in a West Virginia state court.
The reputation of the Explorer, the best-selling sport utility vehicle, was hurt by a U.S. investigation into at least 271 highway deaths involving tread separation by Bridgestone Corp.'s Firestone tires, mostly on Explorers. Ford settled hundreds of suits over rollovers related to tire failures.
Ford has been sued several hundred times over Explorer rollovers in cases that don't involve tire failures.
Ford shares fell 19 cents to $8.47 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Dearborn-based Ford is the second-largest automaker in North America, behind General Motors Corp.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....