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Jury Orders Ford to Pay $122.6 Million

Times Staff Writer

A San Diego jury has ordered Ford Motor Co. to pay $122.6 million to a woman paralyzed in a wreck of an Explorer SUV, in the first-ever damage award based on a finding that the popular vehicles are defective because of their rollover risk and weak roofs.

The verdict -- more than four times the amount the plaintiffs’ lawyers had requested -- could grow because it includes compensatory damages only. On Wednesday, the jury began considering whether to tack on punitive damages. It will resume deliberations this morning.

Over the years, the No. 2 U.S. automaker has settled hundreds of Explorer rollover claims -- some involving tire failures, some not -- but always without admitting liability. But before Tuesday’s verdict in San Diego County Superior Court, Ford had compiled a perfect record in the few cases it had elected to fight in court.

The company had been victorious in 13 consecutive trials in which plaintiffs claimed Explorers were defective because of rollover risk, inadequate roof strength or both.

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The only exception was a case in Barstow in January 2002 in which jurors found that the Explorer was defectively designed but awarded no damages on grounds that Ford wasn’t responsible for the wreck. Instead, settlements were paid by a car dealership that had failed to make repairs on the SUV and by Caltrans for its design of the highway and for placing a concrete barrier too near traffic lanes.

The San Diego plaintiff, Benetta Buell-Wilson, 49, was paralyzed in January 2002 after she lost control of her ’97 Explorer while trying to steer around road debris on Interstate 8 near El Cajon. The vehicle ran off the road and rolled over 4 1/2 times.

Her lawyers had asked the jury for as much as $27 million in compensatory damages for Buell-Wilson and her husband, Barry Wilson. One of the lawyers, Dennis Schoville, said the verdict sent “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.”

“It’s going to continue until Ford Motor Co. is required to do something” to improve the stability and roof strength of the vehicles, he said.

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Vowing Ford would appeal, spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said the firm was disappointed that it hadn’t been allowed to present evidence comparing the safety of the Explorer to that of other SUVs.

“The Explorer is a safe vehicle” that “meets or exceeds all federal safety standards,” she said.

As for the $122.6 million in compensatory damages, “it’s not based on any rationale that we can comprehend,” Vokes said.

The verdict included about $4.6 million for past and future economic losses of Buell-Wilson, including medical expenses and lost income. The jury awarded her an additional $105 million for past and future pain and suffering. An additional $13 million for past and future loss of consortium was awarded to her husband.

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Tab Turner, an Arkansas plaintiffs’ lawyer who has settled scores of Explorer rollover cases, said Wednesday that “it was just a matter of time” before Ford suffered a major loss.

“They got a little too brave and they picked the wrong case in the wrong venue,” he said. “They have clearly cherry-picked over the years in terms of what [cases] they actually allowed to go to trial so they could get a good won-loss record and then force settlements lower and lower.”

Turner added that this strategy wasn’t unique to Ford.

He said the long-term effect of the case would “totally depend on Ford ... because Ford controls the checkbook.” Plaintiffs may become “less quick to settle now ... and how Ford responds to that is going to reflect the impact of this case.”

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With more than 5 million Explorers on the road, the model is perennially the most popular SUV and one of the top-selling vehicles of any kind.

The San Diego verdict “is obviously a major ruling,” said Dan Genter, chief investment officer at Genter Capital Management in Los Angeles, which manages about $1.8 billion in assets, including about $50 million in Ford bonds.

“The amount, to me, is almost unprecedented,” he said, adding that the scale of Ford’s loss will be much greater if jurors decide in the punitive phase that Ford “knowingly and willfully” ignored stability concerns.

Ford shares dipped 15 cents Wednesday to $14.89 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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In 1999, Ford suffered an even larger defeat in a rollover roof-crush case when a jury in Stanislaus County, Calif., ordered the company to pay more than $290 million to victims of a wreck of a Bronco. But more than 90% of the amount was punitive damages -- much of it eventually disallowed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting punitive damages in most cases to nine times the compensatory award. Ford eventually paid $34.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Times wire services were used in compiling this report.


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