June 3, 2004
FREE PRESS NEWS SERVICES
SAN DIEGO — A jury ordered Ford Motor Co. to pay at least $122 million to a woman paralyzed in a rollover accident, the first setback in a string of lawsuits involving the Ford Explorer, the nation’s best-selling sport-utility vehicle.
Ford previously won 11 rollover lawsuits involving the Explorer, a company spokeswoman said.
The final award could be much higher. The award issued late Tuesday covered only compensatory damages. The jury began deliberations Wednesday on punitive damages.
Ford said it will appeal.
The trial involved a January 2002 accident east of San Diego. Driver Benetta Buell-Wilson swerved to avoid a metal object and lost control of her 1997 Explorer, which rolled 4 1/2 times.
Buell-Wilson, a 49-year-old mother of two, was permanently paralyzed from the waist down when the roof collapsed on her neck.
"I’m lucky because I’m short," she said. "If I’d been any taller, I probably would have been a quadriplegic or brain-damaged. Or dead."
In a statement, Ford insisted the Explorer was safe and blamed Buell-Wilson. "We can appreciate the empathy that this jury felt for the plaintiff, but this was an extremely severe crash caused by the driver, and any SUV would have rolled over under similar circumstances," spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said. "The evidence and real world data show the Explorer is a safe vehicle. It meets or exceeds all federal safety standards."
Ford has sold more than 5 million Explorers since the vehicle was introduced in 1990, she said.
Dennis Schoville, Buell-Wilson’s attorney, contended Ford sacrificed passenger safety for profits. The lawsuit involved design issues found on all Explorers made through 2001, he said.
Schoville said Ford declined to follow its engineers’ suggestions to widen the Explorer’s wheel track or to lower its center of gravity, costly changes that would make the vehicle more stable. Concern about costs also kept Ford from sufficiently reinforcing the Explorer’s roof to protect passengers in a vehicle "they know is going to roll over," he said.
"This is an important message because there are a lot of people out there that are driving these vehicles that don’t have, like Mrs. Wilson, any clue of what could happen," he said.
The reputation of the Explorer was hurt by a U.S. investigation into at least 271 highway deaths involving tread separation by Bridgestone Corp.‘s Firestone tires, mostly on Explorers. Ford settled hundreds of lawsuits over rollovers related to tire failures. None of the lawsuits against Ford involving tread separations went to jury verdicts.
Ford has been sued several hundred times over Explorer rollovers in cases that don’t involve tire failures. Ford has settled many of these cases.