Know all those HUGE, “outrageous” verdicts that tort reformers cite as proof that juries are out of their minds and are too plaintiff-friendly? This is the story of one such verdict and, unfortunately, it is not unusual.
In 2004, a San Diego jury awarded Benetta Buell-Wilson and her family nearly $370 Million dollars in a Ford Explorer roll-over auto accident case. Now, the Supreme Court will review the verdict and possibly reduce it. The Supreme Court will be the third court to do so after the trial court and the Fourth District Court of Appeals both reduced the verdict from $122 Million in compensatory damages and $246 Million in punitive damages to $27.6 Million (compensatory) and $55 Million (punitive).
What happened to Benetta?:
On a January afternoon in 2002, Buell-Wilson was driving at a normal speed on Interstate 8 east of San Diego when she swerved to avoid a metal object that had fallen off a motor home. Her 1997 Explorer fishtailed and rolled over four times. Part of its roof was crushed, and Buell-Wilson suffered a severe spinal injury.
As a result of the accident, Benetta is now paralyzed and confined to a wheel-chair.
Now, Ford had previously won 13 trials without a loss. And they weren’t shy about sharing that fact during litigation in the hopes of forcing Benetta and her husband to settle.
Plaintiffs were 0-13 and Benetta and her attorneys were risking a huge disappointment. These cases are not cheap to try. I’ve heard some estimates that Benetta’s attorneys paid upwards of $750,000 to experts to prepare and try the case. And if they lost, the lawyers would lose that investment, Benetta would be forced to pay for all future care by herself out of her own pocket, and, worse still, Benetta would be forced to pay Ford’s litigation costs.
Given all this risk, and the evidence that Ford knew of problems with its’ vehicles for roof crush and roll over propensity, is $370 Million dollars outrageous to pay for a permanent injury and to punish Ford for its’ callousness?
In fact, the problem had been well-documented for years:
No recall has ever been ordered for these vehicles. How many are still out on the road? How many more roof crush injuries or deaths will still occur? Will Ford EVER be forced to pay enough that they will consider the safety of their customers?
The Supreme Court should uphold the reduced verdict. Ford is already emboldened by the two prior reductions. No need to make it worse for consumer safety.