Explorer suit costs Ford $31 million
Texas jury finds automaker at fault in 2003 rollover crash that killed 2 women.
Detroit News staff and wire reports
2000 Ford Explorer
A jury in Texas found Ford Motor Co. liable for $31 million in the deaths of two 19-year-old women in an Explorer rollover accident.
The women, Corina Garcia and Diana Alicia Alonzo, were ejected from a 2000 Explorer in which they were passengers when it turned over in May 2003 outside of San Antonio. Their families sued Ford, alleging the automaker should have used stronger glass in the vehicle.
"Ford's body-engineering office did a cost evaluation, and their own documents showed this would cost only $6 to $10 a car," Mikal Watts of the Watts Law Firm of Corpus Christi, Texas, the lawyer for the women's families, told Bloomberg News.
The verdict, awarded Tuesday by a Crystal City, Texas, jury, is the third against Ford in an Explorer rollover lawsuit. The company won the first 13 cases that went to trial before losing a $369 million jury verdict in San Diego in June. Ford is defending the Explorer SUV in more than two dozen trials this year in which the vehicle rolled over.
Ford plans to appeal the verdict.
"There was no credible evidence introduced at this trial to support a jury finding that a vehicle defect caused this accident or the death and injuries," Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said.
The reputation of the Explorer, the nation's best-selling SUV, 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.
None of the suits against Ford involving tread separation was decided by a trial verdict. Ford has been sued several hundred times over Explorer rollovers in cases that don't involve tire failures, including the one filed by the Garcia and Alonzo families.
Alonzo and Garcia were ejected and killed after driver Saul Guerrero Jr. lost control of the Explorer when he missed a sharp turn on a highway and went onto an unpaved road, Watts said.
"This is such a poor-handling vehicle that if you just turn the steering wheel one-half of a quarter turn, it causes the vehicle to spin out sideways" in an emergency, Watts said.
A third passenger, who also was ejected, suffered an ankle injury, Watts said. The jury awarded $15 million each to the Alonzo and Garcia families; $500,000 to the third passenger, Arturo Guerrero Jr.; and $500,000 in punitive damages against Ford.
The jury found Ford 90 percent liable for the accident and assigned 10 percent of the responsibility to the driver. Under Texas liability law, Ford must pay the entire amount because it was found more than 50 percent responsible and the driver has no assets, Watts said. Ford said it is responsible for the full amount.
Ford argued to the jury that the driver's speeding caused the one-vehicle accident and that the deaths were caused by the women's failure to wear seat belts. The four occupants of the vehicle -- all high school seniors -- were returning to San Antonio from several graduation parties. They were all unbelted and ejected during the accident, Ford said.
"This was another terrible reminder that people should not drink and drive and that seat belts can help protect occupants only when they are worn," Vokes said. Ford introduced evidence that the driver had a 0.02 percent blood alcohol level, one-fourth of the level that is illegal in Texas.
Watts claims alcohol wasn't a factor in the accident.
Attorneys for the Garcia and Alonzo families said that Ford should have used laminated instead of tempered glass in the vehicle's side windows to prevent ejections. Ford said laminated glass wouldn't have kept the women from being ejected and was hardly ever used in side windows when the vehicle was made.
"At that time, 99.9 percent of all vehicles made by all manufacturers, through the 2000 model year, had the kind of tempered glass used in this vehicle," Vokes said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn't require laminated glass in side windows, she said.
The Garcia and Alonzo families argued during the trial that meeting federal safety requirements doesn't mean the product is safe, Watts said.
"Every vehicle meets the standards or they can't be sold, but they're minimal standards," he said. "The federal government urged the industry to use alternative glass."
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.