Ford Motor Found Liable for Bulk of $17M Award to Injured Passenger

(courtesy of the Georgia Trial Reporter)

Case Caption: Lynn Wheeler, et al. v. Ford Motor Company and John C. Stanley
Case Number:  2007CV05570E
Court:  Clayton County Superior Court
Verdict: $17,716,401 in compensatory damages.
Breakdown: $12,716,401 to plaintiff and $5,000,000 to plaintiff’s husband for loss of consortium.  Judgment was against Defendant Stanley for $1,271,640 and against Defendant Ford Motor Company for $16,444,761. See Editor’s Note.
Judge: Morris E. Braswell
Date of Verdict: 12/18/2009
: James E. Butler Jr., Atlanta
George W. Fryhofer III, Atlanta
L’Erin F. Barnes, Jonesboro
Defendant: Russell D. Waldon; Hilliard V. Castilla, Atlanta (Stanley)
Kimberly A. McNamara, Atlanta (Stanley)
Michael R. Boorman; Jill D. Jacobson, Richmond; Thomas Klein, Phoenix AZ (Ford)

A Clayton County jury returned a verdict of $17,716,401 in compensatory damages for catastrophic injuries sustained by a grandmother when the rear seat latch of a Ford Explorer failed. This alleged failure resulted in her neck and head smashing into the front console during a head-on collision. The jury also found the injured plaintiff was entitled to punitive damages, but a confidential settlement was reached during deliberations on the punitive damages issue.

Plaintiff Lynn Wheeler was riding to church with her son and his family on Christmas Day 2005. She was seated in between her two grandchildren in the back seat of her son’s 2002 Ford Explorer. Because the Explorer was not equipped with a three point restraint in the middle position of the bench seat, plaintiff was restrained only by a lap belt. Defendant John C. Stanley was driving a 1995 Eagle Talon on Noah’s Ark Road and was heading in the opposite direction of plaintiff’s vehicle. Defendant Stanley lost control around a curve and crashed head-on into the Explorer. Stanley suffered a fractured leg in the wreck. Plaintiff suffered a spinal cord injury when her head and neck were forced into the back of the front seat and/or center console. She was completely paralyzed below the neck as a result of the trauma and also suffered a rupture of her intestines and other abdominal injuries. None of the other occupants in the Explorer sustained any significant injuries.

Plaintiff alleged Defendant Stanley was negligent in failing to maintain control of his vehicle and in crossing left of center. Plaintiff also alleged Defendant Ford Motor Company was negligent in its design of both the rear seat latch and in making a decision to install a lap belt rather than a three-point shoulder restraint, despite the known safety risk to rear seat passengers. Plaintiff argued that the combination of the lack of a shoulder restraint and a failure of the rear seat latch resulted in her injuries. Plaintiff further claimed Ford’s failure to warn of the dangers associated with the Ford Explorer’s rear seat occupant restraint system and surrounding structures was reckless and negligent. In support of this argument, plaintiff presented evidence, including Ford’s own memoranda, which revealed the company had been aware of the dangers of lap-only belts for more than 30 years, but delayed the installation of three-point safety belts to save money. Additionally, plaintiff argued that the rear seat was in too close a proximity to the frontal structures, allowing occupants to hit their heads.

Defendant Stanley admitted to causing the wreck, but denied liability for the injuries Lynn Wheeler suffered. Defendant Ford Motor Company disputed liability and maintained that the Explorer met or exceeded all government safety standards established for the manufacturing of the 2002 model. Ford argued that the lap belt was necessary to accommodate some child safety seats and, in some situations, the lap belt was safer for children who did not properly fit in the federally-mandated outboard lap/shoulder belts. Ford further maintained that the latch had been designed and tested to withstand the forces generated by the accident. Ford also argued that cargo in the rear of the SUV may have slid forward during the wreck, contributing to the load on plaintiff’s seat and causing the seat to collapse. In response, plaintiff presented the testimony from the police officers and witnesses at the scene who
noted that the only things in the cargo area were some Bibles and a child’s toy.

Plaintiff Profile: Plaintiff was a 58 year old married female.
Alleged Injury: Spinal cord injury resulting in complete paralysis below the neck (quadriplegia). In addition, plaintiff suffered abdominal injuries and a rupture of her intestines by the lap belt, requiring her to use a urinary catheter and colostomy bag.
Plaintiff remains on a ventilator for life support.

Editor’s Notes: A confidential settlement was reached during
deliberations to determine punitive damages.
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