Florida judge says Ford had “a calculated plan to interfere with the judicial system”
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
In a remarkable decision announced last week, a Florida judge reversed a jury’s verdict in favor of Ford Motor Co. and ordered a new trial to determine damages for a woman who was left a quadriplegic after a crash she says was caused by sudden unintended acceleration of her 1991 Aerostar van. St.Petersburg Times reporter John Barry writes it marks the first time a court “has found validity in decades of complaints by drivers that faulty electronics can cause their cars to rocket out of control.”
William T. Swigert, a senior judge in Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, delivered a scathing 51-page memorandum outlining his reasons for overturning a verdict that had been delivered in his court in February 2010, when a jury deliberated for just two hours before finding Ford not liable for Peggy Stimpson‘s injuries. Swigert accused Ford of “hiding or destroying records of its own engineers’ concerns about sudden acceleration caused by electronics — instead blaming accidents on drivers inadvertently hitting the gas pedal,” according to Barry.
Peggy Stimpson and her husband Ralph had blamed electromagnetic interference for causing their van to inexplicably accelerate out their driveway in October 2003 and hit a utility pole, causing the injuries that put Peggy Stimpson in a wheelchair. Ford’s argument at trial was that Ralph Stimpson had stepped on the accelerator while shifting into drive.
The Stimpsons claimed Ford had for years fraudulently concealed a design defect that left the Aerostar vulnerable to unintended acceleration and had destroyed or concealed documents related to the problem. They also claimed the automaker had defended similar cases using fraudulent and intentionally misleading claims, citing government reports it knew to be erroneous and without scientific foundation. After the verdict, the Stimpsons asked the court to review, saying the company had used those same techniques to win the case.
Judge Swigert’s detailed review of the evidence and the way it was presented at trial led him to determine the jury had been intentionally misled. Barry writes,
During the February 2010 trial, Ford’s defense was based on misstatements about critical evidence and personal attacks on the Stimpsons’ attorneys, Swigert said.
Ford followed “a calculated plan to interfere with the judicial system’s ability to adjudicate a matter by improperly influencing the jury,” he said.
The judge said Ford had concealed or destroyed its own service reports that identified “electromagnetic interference” as a possible cause of cruise control problems.
If those reports had been shared with federal safety authorities, he wrote, “the government would have discovered years ago that electronic failures in the cruise control system is a cause of sudden acceleration.”
According to a Bloomberg News report by Margaret Cronin Fisk and Laurence Viele Davidson:
Swigert said Ford told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that there were no components that could cause sudden acceleration and that if an incident had been caused by a design failure, “it would leave physical evidence” of multiple failures.
“These claims were false and are contradicted” by the service investigative reports, an internal Ford study and engineering reports commissioned by the company’s technical affairs committee, Swigert said.
The federal agency found no defects in Ford vehicles related to sudden acceleration in a 1989 examination. Ford knew this study was “predicated upon false information,” Swigert said. “Ford’s copious use of that report throughout the trial was likewise misleading and fraudulent.”
Officials at Ford said they will appeal Judge Swigert’s decision. If the decision is upheld, it could lead to other unintended acceleration cases being reopened.