Brandy Baker / The Detroit News
Tony Alaniz says his older brother, Paul, who was killed in a rollover accident, was not a reckless driver. Alaniz is standing near the spot where his brother’s body was found.
Jury links vehicle’s roof design to ejection
As part of its defense in the Benavides v. Ford lawsuit, Ford Motor Co. hired an outside firm to do a 45 mph dolly rollover test on a F-150 Supercab. The truck suffered severe damage to the roof. The test showed the doors flying open and dummies being partially ejected.
The plaintiff’s lawyers used Ford’s own tests to convince a jury that the crushed roof helped cause the fatal ejection of Paul Alaniz and Laura Benavides. The jury awarded their survivors $225 million.
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Ford Motor Co. has settled a number of lawsuits challenging the strength of the roof in its F-Series SuperCab pickup.
One case, however, stands out from the rest.
In December 2002, a Duval County, Texas, jury found that a crushed roof caused the side doors of a 2000-model SuperCab to burst open, ejecting Paul Alaniz and Laura Benavides to their deaths from the rolling pickup.
The verdict is believed to be the first time that a jury linked roof deformation to occupant ejection in a rollover accident.
Detroit’s Big Three automakers have long maintained that ejection is an entirely separate issue from the growing debate over federal standards governing roof strength.
But in Benavides v. Ford, the jury ruled that a crushed roof forced open the driver’s door and the rear-hinged passenger door on the same side.
"It was clearly a survivable accident if the doors had stayed closed," said Jeff Wigington, the attorney for the Alaniz family.
Ford declined interview requests. In court, the automaker’s lawyers argued that the driver, Paul Alaniz, was solely at fault because he consumed alcohol on the evening of the accident, then lost control of his F-150 on a two-lane highway about 75 miles southwest of Corpus Christi.
The jury didn’t agree, and awarded the Alaniz and Benavides families a combined $225 million – one of the biggest automotive product-liability judgments on record.
Ford chose not to appeal the case and, instead, negotiated a confidential settlement, Wigington said.
A critical piece of evidence introduced at trial was a four-minute video of an F-150 SuperCab ejected off a moving dolly at about 45 miles per hour.
Ford commissioned an outside firm to do the test, primarily to show the jury how severe the accident was that killed Alaniz and Benavides.
Instead, the plaintiffs’ attorneys offered the video into evidence.
In the dolly-rollover test, the SuperCab’s doors popped open on the driver’s side, and test dummies were partially ejected from the vehicle.
Because of its "barn-door" style center-opening doors, the SuperCab has no B-pillars supporting the roof in the center of the truck.
Door latches failed
At the Benavides trial, former Ford engineer John Stilson, testified that latches fastening the front and rear driver’s side doors failed because the roof caved in.
"On the second roll, the driver’s door latch failed because of the manner in which the roof crushed," said Stilson, testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Each year, more than 26,000 people are killed or seriously injured in rollover accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly 7,000 deaths and serious injuries involve accidents where the vehicle roof crushed.
NHTSA only considers crushed roofs a factor in rollovers accidents where the occupants aren’t ejected. Safety experts, however, say deformed roofs do play a role in rollover ejections.
"The roof-crush mode influences not only roof deformation, it can influence the risk of ejection," said Ken Digges of the National Crash Analysis Center at George Washington University, which is conducting an extensive roof crush study for NHTSA.
Crush-related ejections are usually tied to windshields or windows breaking in a rollover, with occupants ejected out the opening, said former General Motors Corp. engineer Donald Friedman, a frequent plaintiff’s witness in roof crush lawsuits.
High rollover rate faulted
Critics claim the Ford F-150 SuperCab appears to have an abnormally high rate of ejections in rollovers. (The lawsuits against the SuperCab predate Ford’s redesign of its F-Series lineup for the 2004 model year.)
A total of 134 people were fatally ejected from F-Series SuperCabs from 1998 to 2001, according to a Ford internal document introduced at the Benavides trial.
The CrewCab version of the F-Series, which has four conventional doors with front hinges, accounted for 71 fatal ejections during the same period.
Even if an occupant is not ejected, the lack of B-pillars in the SuperCab weakens the overall roof structure, said Houston plaintiff’s attorney Mikal Watts.
"Everyone, including everyone at Ford, knows the roof structure on these trucks simply will not protect people in rollover accidents," Watts said after a Texas jury awarded $18 million to Mario Castro, who was paralyzed in a SuperCab rollover.
In the Benavides trial, Ford lawyer Rosewell Page III said the SuperCab’s roof exceeded Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216 by 43 percent. "The vehicle was reasonably safe," he said.
But the circumstances of the accident convinced the jury otherwise.
On the evening of July 20, 2001, Paul Alaniz, 35, drove to a club in Kingsville, Texas, with three friends: Laura Benavides, 20; Juan Flores, 26; and Eluterio Elizondo, 24.
Alaniz, a physical-education teacher and youth football coach, drank at least two beers during the night out, according to trial testimony. His blood-alcohol level was 0.04 percent, half of the legal limit in Texas.
On the return trip, Alaniz drove with Benavides seated behind him. Flores and Elizondo were in the front and rear seats on the passenger side.
About 2:30 a.m., Alaniz lost control of the F-150. The truck tipped on the passenger side, and rolled three times off State Highway 2285, according to court records.
The roof on the driver’s side – the "trailing" side in the rollover – was crushed severely. Both doors on the driver’s side came open. Alaniz and Benavides were ejected an estimated 100 feet into a field of sagebrush and cactus.
Seat belts not used
But the doors on the passenger side stayed closed. Both Flores and Elizondo stayed in the vehicle and were uninjured.
None of the four were wearing seat belts.
"The two on the side where the roof crushed and the doors popped open, they died," said Tony Alaniz, Paul’s younger brother. "The two on the right side where the doors stayed closed, they lived."
Page, For’s lawyer, blamed Paul Alaniz for the wreck.
"If Mr. Alaniz had not lost control of this vehicle, there would be no accident and there would be no death," Page said.
The wreck, he said, was a "violent" accident.
"Accidents happen every day," Page said in court. "People die on the highway."
Tony Alaniz said his older brother was hardly a reckless driver.
"He never had a speeding ticket in his life, never had a single citation for anything," he said. "He didn’t fall asleep. He went off the road, overcorrected, and the truck rolled over."
He wears a gold chain that he took off his brother’s body at the accident scene nearly three years ago. Last month, Tony Alaniz visited the site, marked by two white, wooden crosses on the roadside.
"It’s just something that’s so hard to accept," he said. "You know, I had that same truck. Paul liked it so much he bought one just like it."
He sold his SuperCab after the accident, and now drives a four-door sedan.
Photo courtesy of Alaniz family
A jury found that a crushed roof caused the side doors of this F-Series SuperCab to burst open, ejecting Paul Alaniz and Laura Benavides to their deaths as the truck rolled.