$1.7 billion verdict underscores complexity of vehicle liability cases

fordlogo-300x123Even the strongest believer in the wisdom of juries in civil lawsuits had to take a pause. But, yes, the verdict in an Atlanta case has been correctly reported.  Jurors deliberating on the damages caused in roll-over of a Ford 250 truck did, indeed, order the automaker to pay the family of two people killed in the auto wreck a sum that apparently set a record in such a Georgia proceeding: $1.7 billion.

Jurors awarded that sum after years of litigation, described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, thusly:

“Voncile Hill, 62, and her husband Melvin Hill, 74, died after their tire blew out on a Sumter County highway in 2014 and their 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 pickup rolled over. They were farmers traveling from their Macon County home to Americus to pick up a tractor part, said James E. Butler, [an attorney with the firm] of Butler Prather [representing the couple’s family] … The children sued Ford and Pep Boys, among others. The jury determined Ford had sold 5.2 million ‘Super Duty’ trucks with weak roofs that would crush people inside during rollovers. The flaw was present in all ‘Super Duty’ models between 1999 and 2016, Butler said.”

The newspaper reported this information as to how jurors assessed responsibility in this lawsuit and how their award to plaintiffs will be split:

“Three-quarters of the punitive damages go to the state of Georgia, per state law for product liability cases. The jury … awarded Kim and Adam Hill more than $24 million for their parents’ wrongful deaths and pain and suffering. The jury determined 30% of the damages went against Pep Boys for installing the wrong size tires on the truck, causing the blowout. Butler said evidence showed the wreck was survivable and the Hills died because they were crushed by the truck’s roof. The trial lasted three weeks. The case was first tried in 2018 but ended in a mistrial. Attorneys submitted evidence of nearly 80 similar wrecks where people had been killed or injured when the trucks’ roofs crushed them during rollovers.”

Pep Boys settled earlier with the family. Ford has said it will appeal the case, asserting that jurors’ findings were unsupported by evidence, which the automaker says shows the company’s extremely popular trucks are safe and comply with federal regulations, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

Still, the company’s stock took a hit, losing 4% of its value in the day after the jurors’ verdict was announced.

Investors likely were aware, due to news reporting, that Ford itself had “identified 162 lawsuits and 83 similar incidents of roof crush in 1999-2016 Super Duty truck,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

While Ford argued that Hill improperly steered the truck after its tire ruptured, causing it to leave the roadway at a dangerous angle, and the company contended that the tire on the truck had the incorrect load-carrying capacity leading to its failure, the Wall Street Journal also reported this:

“The plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed to evidence they said showed the roof on these trucks failed in the company’s own internal testing and that Ford engineers developed a stronger roof for its Super Duty pickups in 2004 but that roof wasn’t used in trucks sold to customers until the 2017 model year, according to court documents.”

In a further follow-up article, the newspaper added yet more insight into regulatory and safety issues with highly popular trucks of certain sizes and weights:

“Federal regulators excluded heavy-duty trucks like the pickup at the center of a recent $1.7 billion verdict against Ford Motor Co. from tougher roof-strength requirements adopted decades ago, then later reversed the decision to include future models. The rules, which were expanded more than 30 years ago to include lighter trucks, were intended to better protect occupants in a rollover crash. Vehicle manufacturers, including Ford, had lobbied before the rule change that the stiffer standards shouldn’t apply to their heavier trucks, government filings show, saying the safety benefits were still uncertain for these types of vehicles. The regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, at the time decided not to include the heavier trucks in the regulations. In 2009, following an order by Congress, NHTSA extended the tougher roof-safety rules to trucks with a higher gross weight … Often in cases involving high-dollar punitive damages, the final amount is scaled back in the appeals process. The case highlights how auto regulations that evolve over time can become a point of contention years later when safety concerns emerge about older vehicles. The federal roof-crush requirement has been invoked by plaintiffs in the Georgia lawsuit, as well as similar cases involving Ford trucks and fatal rollover crashes, records show.”

NHTSA told the Wall Street Journal that “publicly available records show no investigative action or safety recalls related to incidents of collapsed roofs involving model year 1999-2016 Super Duty trucks. The agency declined to comment on its earlier decisions around the roof-crush requirements. NHTSA said, under the Biden Administration, it has secured additional resources to work through a backlog of proposed auto-safety rules more expeditiously.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by motorcycle, car, and truck wrecks. We are all one wrong step off a curb, one blown stoplight by a distracted driver, or one intoxicated trucker away from having our lives turned upside down due to a vehicular nightmare. Too many of us, as my attorneys and I know, experience pain, suffering, injury, debilitation, and significant personal, professional, and financial mayhem due to a road calamity.

Sure, the conventional wisdom suggests that those involved in road wrecks should work with law enforcement, exchange coverage information, and contact one’s insurer. It also makes sense in serious incidents to talk with an experienced lawyer — to protect your rights, including keeping your insurer working for you and not in their own interests.

As manufacturers also advance the technology in their products, it can be crucial to have savvy legal counsel to help steer you through the possibility of flaws in hardware and software on vehicles and whether this affects your case. These kinds of issues are increasing for consumers and automakers due to the rising complexity of vehicles, how they are made, and what’s in them, as the Wall Street Journal reported, noting the struggles of Ford, in particular, to deal with quality matters:

“Ford executives have for years worked to tackle costly quality and warranty problems with their vehicles, including making this effort a priority under the current chief executive, Jim Farley. The company has issued 49 recalls this year, the most of any automaker, according to data from[N HTSA]. ‘We continue to be hampered by recalls and customer-satisfaction actions,’ Mr. Farley said on a July earnings call. ‘This affects our cost but more importantly, it falls short on our most fundamental commitment to our customers.’ It couldn’t be determined whether the quality issues that the company is trying to address have anything to do with the Georgia accident.

“Last year, Ford set aside more than $4 billion for warranty costs, up 76% from five years earlier. The car company’s total warranty expenses increased about 17% from 2016 to 2021. Earlier this year, Mr. Farley brought on a new executive director of quality, Josh Halliburton. Before coming to Ford, Mr. Halliburton spent 17 years at J.D. Power, an independent research firm that specializes in assessing and studying vehicle quality. ‘We are placing more time and emphasis on ensuring everything is done right upfront to prevent quality issues from manifesting later in the development process,’ Mr. Halliburton said. He added that he expects to see Ford’s warranty problems improve next year, but that it might take two to three years to see results with the most impact.”

We have much work to do to improve the safety of our roads and various means of transportation, enjoying the benefits that technological advances may offer while also not seeing them cause preventable injury or death as innovations get perfected for regular use.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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