U.S. Supreme Court denies Ford’s appeal of $55 million in punitive damages resulting from rollover
Monday, November 30, 2009
The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by Ford Motor Co. and will let stand a $55 million punitive damage award in a case involving a California woman who has paralyzed when her Ford Explorer rolled over. As is typically the case when the court declines to hear a case, it offered no comment. Ford attorneys contended the California law covering punitive damages is unconstitutionally vague and uncertain when it comes to products that meet federal safety standards.
Benetta Buell-Wilson was injured in 2002 when she swerved to avoid a chunk of metal that had fallen from a van on Interstate 8 east of San Diego and her 1997 Explorer rolled four times and then landed on its roof. A San Diego County Superior Court jury found in her favor after her lawyers argued the Explorer’s design made it prone to rolling over during routine evasive handling and its roof wasn’t strong enough to hold up in a rollover. Ford’s attorneys argued the vehicle complied with federal safety standards.
Buell-Wilson’s lead appellate counsel, Jerome B. Falk, Jr., said the damage award in the case “is fully justified by Ford’s marketing of a vehicle with known defects creating a high risk of death or serious injury to its occupants even though the vehicle could have been made safe at a modest cost.” In its brief in opposition to Ford’s Supreme Court appeal, Buell-Wilson’s legal team wrote, “Ford was on notice, long before it designed the Explorer, that knowingly designing and selling a vehicle that exposes consumers to severe injury or death, when the defect could be corrected at minimal cost, could result in punitive damages liability.”
The punitive damages that were appealed are only part of the damages assessed in the case. Ford’s total bill is now up to almost $88 million with interest, and the company has already paid $30 million in compensatory damages and costs. The jury awarded Buell-Wilson $369 million in 2004, but that amount was reduced by the trial judge and further reduced on appeal. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007, and the court ordered a reconsideration of the punitive damage award. But the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego affirmed its award decision.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was among the business organizations that supported Ford in its latest appeal. Ford attorneys argued their company as well as other manufacturers “are routinely exposed to massive punitive damage awards without regard to whether they had notice sufficient to allow them to comply with the law and avoid punishment.” Los Angeles Times reporter David G. Savage wrote the business groups “urged the justices to take a more skeptical look at the notion of juries imposing punishment on manufacturers.”
The Buell-Wilson case was the first in which Ford was ordered to pay damages as the result of an Explorer rollover, after the company had won 11 previous cases nationwide. Ford had reached a settlement with some victims before trial.