Court stands firm on Ford design-defect ruling

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Eric Freedman
Automotive News | October 16, 2006

A federal appeals court has refused to reconsider its decision upholding a verdict of nearly $9 million in a lawsuit alleging that the roof of a 1996 Ford Crown Victoria was defectively designed.

The three-judge panel found sufficient evidence to support the product-liability claim by Barry Muth Sr., a front-seat passenger who was left a quadriplegic after an April 1999 crash in Saudi Arabia. He was stationed there as a U.S. Army major.

Ford Motor Co. unsuccessfully petitioned the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a new hearing, company spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said.

The driver, a fellow Army officer who was going about 10 mph above the 80 kph (48 mph) speed limit, lost control and ran into a 3-foot-high barrier separating the two sides of the road, the court said. The Crown Victoria slid along the barrier and ultimately flipped onto its roof, which collapsed 12 to 15 inches. The driver testified that he injured his shoulder, requiring surgery, and that he suffered from neck pain and headaches after the crash, Vokes said.

Muth’s suit – filed in Texas, where he moved for treatment after the accident – alleged that the roof and passenger restraint system had been defectively designed. But most of the trial focused on whether Ford should have designed the roof structure to provide better crush protection.

“The significant issue in the case was whether a stronger roof could prevent serious head injuries,” Muth’s lawyer, Thomas Harkness of Austin, told Automotive News. “The jury obviously thought it does.”

Ford denied liability and countered that although a stronger roof would have been feasible, it would have done little if anything to prevent injuries in rollover accidents such as Muth’s.

In affirming the jury award, the appeals court said Muth had presented enough proof, including expert testimony, to support the roof-defect claim.

It also held that the trial judge was justified in refusing to let Ford show the jury video footage and photos of two crash tests: a General Motors rollover test from the 1980s involving the Chevrolet Malibu and a 2000-01 Ford crash test using a 1998-2000 Crown Victoria. The judge found that the visual aids would have been unfairly prejudicial to Muth.

Although the proposed visual evidence would have illustrated Ford’s assertion that a stronger roof wouldn’t prevent injuries in rollovers, appeals Judge Patrick Higginbotham emphasized that Ford’s expert witness was allowed to testify at length about the tests.