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.