By Ray Huard
June 4, 2004
Ford Motor Co. should pay punitive damages of $246 million in addition to nearly $123 million in compensatory damages to a Del Cerro woman paralyzed two years ago in a Ford Explorer rollover crash, a jury said yesterday.
In a 9-3 verdict against the automaker, the company’s first loss in more than a dozen similar lawsuits, the jury said Benetta Buell-Wilson was seriously injured in a crash on Interstate 8 because of design defects in her 1997 Explorer. The San Diego Superior Court jury found Ford knew about the defects but refused to correct them.
A unanimous jury verdict is not required in civil cases.
Several jurors interviewed outside the courtroom said they were outraged at what they saw as Ford’s disregard for driver safety. Many hugged Buell-Wilson and her husband, Barry Wilson, and joined them at a victory celebration in a nearby hotel cocktail lounge.
"Getting their profit was all they cared about," said Michelle, a juror from downtown San Diego who declined to give her last name, about Ford. "I’ll never drive another Ford vehicle in my life."
Juror Leo Santiago, a high school teacher from Point Loma, said the jurors wanted to send a message to automakers that "the people of California are sick and tired" of companies that put faulty products on the market "when people’s lives are a cost of business."
At a news conference after the verdict, Buell-Wilson said, "I just wanted to have the story heard, that what happened to me could happen to anyone else."
The 49-year-old mother of two was driving west on I-8 near Tavern Road in Alpine about 5:15 p.m. Jan. 19, 2002, when she swerved to avoid an object in the road. She said she struggled to maintain control of the Explorer but it tipped and rolled.
"There was nothing I could do," Buell-Wilson said. She said the roof "crumpled like paper," crushing her and breaking her back, paralyzing her from the waist down. "The last time I used my legs was trying to get my car under control."
Buell-Wilson said she would drop $100 million of the punitive damages if Ford agreed within 72 hours to recall Explorers made between 1990 and 2001 to strengthen the roofs and improve the vehicles’ stability.
Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said Ford will appeal the verdict and there would be no recall.
"There’s no defect with the Explorer, there’s no need for a recall," Vokes said in a telephone interview. "The Explorer meets or exceeds all federal requirements."
More than 5 million Explorers have been sold since its introduction in 1990, Vokes said.
If the jury was trying to send a message with its verdict, "it was a misdirected message," Vokes said. She said Ford, the nation’s No. 2 automaker, has prevailed in 13 other lawsuits challenging the design safety of the Explorer.
Legal experts said the verdict will have a wide-ranging effect in the auto industry, although several said the amount of money Ford must pay will probably be reduced on appeal.
"It should prompt reasonable automobile makers to take a look at their own products to see if they’re making the same kind of mistakes with their vehicles," said Susan Bison-Rapp, an associate professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
But Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, said she was troubled by the verdict because it means a jury was second-guessing federal safety regulations that the Explorer met.
"These regulations are comprehensive and I don’t think it’s productive for juries to be able to second-guess those regulations," Heriot said.
Buell-Wilson’s lawyers, Dennis Schoville and Lou Arnell, argued that the design of the Explorer was flawed because it had a high center of gravity and narrow wheel base, which made it prone to rollover accidents. They also argued that the roof was too weak.
Arnell said internal Ford documents showed company engineers had recommended design changes to improve stability but they were ignored.
SUVs in general are prone to tipping because of a high center of gravity, but that can be offset with the installation of electronic stability control systems that control braking in emergency maneuvers, said R. David Pittle, senior vice president for technical policy of Consumers Union. Consumers Union publishes Consumer Reports magazine and tests vehicle performance and reliability.
Consumer Reports reported that the redesigned 2002 Explorer was "a vast improvement over its predecessor" and gave it a "recommended" rating.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year began testing SUVs for rollovers. It gave the Ford Explorer Sport Trac a rating of two stars out of a possible five in rollover testing. The lower the rating, the more likely a vehicle is to roll over. Three other Explorer models are "under review" by the agency.
Barry Wilson, a patent lawyer, said his wife’s crash has been devastating to their family. He said his wife has steel rods attached to her spine to help support her back.
Buell-Wilson was studying to become a high school teacher at the time of the crash and hopes to resume her work.