Following a $16 million verdict, Ford Motor Company settles with a woman left paralyzed in an auto accident. The settlement came as the jury considered additional punitive damages against the manufacturer for design defects in the rear seat latch on its Explorer model.
The $16 million verdict came despite the fact that the cause of the accident was the driver of another vehicle that struck the Ford Explorer in which Lynn Wheeler was a passenger in the back seat. Ms. Wheeler was sitting in the center of the back seat between her two grandchildren as the family was en route to church on Christmas Day in 2005. Upon collision with the other vehicle, the rear seat latch failed folding on Ms. Wheeler and slamming her forward into the front console.
Ms. Wheeler suffered spinal cord damage and permanent paralysis from the neck down. The Georgia jury awarded a total of $17.7 million in damages. The jury found apportioned the liability and fault between the driver of the other vehicle that caused the accident holding him liable for $1.2 million for his negligence and Ford liable for the remainder on the products liability claim.
The jury was considering additional punitive damages against Ford at the time of the settlement. The punitive damages could have enormous. Punitive damages typically are based in part on the revenue of the defendant. Punitive damages function to deter future conduct. In this case, it appears based upon the evidence presented by the plaintiff's attorney, that Ford had known about the dangers of the lap only seatbelts for more than 30 years based upon extensive crash testing and research. The knowledge was well documented in Ford's own safety documentation and internal memos.
Despite the obvious dangers presented by the defective design, Ford failed to correct the problem continuing to install the lap belts rather than the safer shoulder belts. As a result of Ford's knowledge of the dangers of its defective design and its deliberate failure to correct the problem, it is likely that the jury would have awarded significant punitive damages. Due to the settlement, Ford will avoid a possibly enormous punitive damages award.
Product liability cases such as these are extremely important for the public safety. Consumers trust their safety and the safety of their families to manufacturers such as Ford. Without product liability suits such as this one, manufacturers would have little incentive to design and manufacture safer products. Indeed, as in this case, the motivation flows in the exact opposite direction as manufacturers would ignore their own safety research and findings in an effort to keep production costs down. It is important that the costs savings associated with cutting costs be weighed heavily against the costs of these suits in the event of their deliberate indifference to the safety of their consumers. Unfortunately, profit alone drives manufacturers such as Ford and the threat of lawsuits if nothing else will hopefully drive them toward more responsible design decisions.
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