While a Clayton County, Georgia jury was deliberating how much to assess in punitive damages against Ford, Ford Motor Co. agreed to a confidential settlement in a case that found design defects in the Ford Explorer’s seat belt system and the seat latch lead to catastrophic injuries for Lynn Wheeler. In the case of Lynn Wheeler v. Ford Motor Co., the jury awarded Lynn Wheeler and her family more than $16 million as compensation for actual damages they incurred following a Christmas 2005 accident that Mrs. Wheeler paralyzed and found that punitive damages should be assessed against Ford.
Although the crash was a head-on collision, most of the occupants of the Ford Explorer survived the collision with relatively minor injuries. According to attorneys for the Wheeler family, Stanley Wheeler suffered a broken leg in the wreck, while the four other passengers in the Explorer “essentially escaped with no significant injury at all.” This fact is evidence that the collision was not so significant that it was not survivable, and that the collision was not so severe that it would necessarily result in catastrophic injuries. In contrast, Lynn Wheeler, who was seated in the back seat between her two grandchildren, was restrained only by a lap belt, and her body was thrust forward and downward as the rear seat latch failed, allowing it to collapse on her. According to the Court’s Pre-Trial Order, “Lynn Wheeler’s head and neck were driven down and forward into the front seat and/or center console, catastrophically injuring her spinal cord.”
The lawsuit filed in Federal Court asserted that the automaker’s design for both the rear seat latch and its decision to install a lap belt only systm rather than a three-point shoulder belt constituted negligence. The lawsuit also alleged Ford should have warned of reasonably foreseeable dangers. During trial, evidence was presented that Ford knew of the dangers of lap-only belts for more than 30 years, but that Ford delayed plans to install three-point belts to save money.
“The key was that we were able to use Ford’s own documents and crash-test memos, going back to the 1960s, to show that they new about it for decades but chose not to make the changes,” he said. “Ford’s crash tests, that they were required to produce by the judge, showed the seats collapsing just like what we claimed happened to Lynn Wheeler, and the crash-test dummies’ head injuries.” In addition, attorneys for the Wheelers introduced evidence of prior similar wrecks and injuries to demonstrate “a recurring design flaw in the Explorer.
If you were seriously injured or if a loved one has suffered a serious injury or death in a car crash, contact Rachel Montes or Tom Herald with Montes Herald Law Group, LLP to schedule a free initial consultation. Protect your legal rights. Call us at (214) 522-9401 and visit our website at https://www.monteslawgroup.com/ for more information about our attorneys.
Ford Motor Company’s efforts to challenge a California jury’s award of punitive damages has been lost when the United States Supreme Court declined to hear Ford’s appeal. The case arose from a Ford Explorer rollover accident which left a Mrs. Buell-Wilson paralyzed. She was driving on an interstate east of San Diego in January 2002 when she swerved to avoid a metal object in the roadway. During the maneuver, she lost control of her 1997 Explorer, which rolled over 4 1/2 times. The mother of two children was paralyzed from the waist down when the roof collapsed on her neck and severed her spine. The jury concluded that Ford knew the Explorer had design defects that made it prone to rollovers in emergency maneuvers and to the collapse of its roof during such incidents. Obviously, these problems present safety hazards to the occupants of the Ford Explorers.
Ford Motor Company was challenging the award of $55 million in punitive damages claiming that it should not be punished because its design of the vehicle met federal safety standards. Essentially, Ford Motor Company was claiming that federal standards pre-empted the award of punitive damages. A California state appeals court earlier rejected Ford’s contention and upheld the award to Benetta Buell-Wilson. The jury had initially awarded Buell-Wilson $369 million, including $246 million in punitive damages but the California courts twice cut the size of the punitive damages award.
If you or your loved ones have been seriously injured or killed in a motor vehicle collision, you need to contact an attorney promptly to protect your rights and to investigate whether you may have a valid products liability case. In the case of serious motor vehicle accidents that result in a rollover, such as this Ford Explorer rollover case, it is important to preserve the evidence and to hire a trained investigator to examine the vehicle to determine if there was a manufacturing, design or warning defect with regard to the vehicle. As the Ford Motor Co. v. Buell-Wilson case points out, sometimes even a one-car accident where many people might originally be concerned with the operator error may be a valid case because the vehicle should have been designed in a manner that it could handle sudden movements without rolling over and subjecting occupants to the risk of serious injury or death from a collapsed roof. Contact Rachel Montes or Tom Herald at the Montes Law Group, P.C. for a free, no obligation, case review (214) 522-9401.