The family of a woman who burned to death when her car’s gas tank exploded during a 1999 rear-end collision has won a significant victory in the Georgia Supreme Court. The court ruled in the family’s favor in their case against Ford Motor Co. and Draw-Tite, the maker of a trailer hitch on the woman’s car. The defendants lost their appeal when the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the verdict of a Georgia state court jury. Anne Marie Gibson died at the scene when a pickup slammed into the back of her 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis as it was stopped on U.S. Highway 129 waiting to make a left turn. Her car was hit again when it was forced into oncoming traffic. Bolts from the trailer hitch gouged into the car’s gas tank, causing it to burst into flames as the passenger doors jammed. Ms. Gibson’s seat collapsed, dropping her back into the flames. As many as 50 other people have been killed or seriously burned in similar accidents involving Ford vehicles. Even though Ford’s exploding gas tanks remain on the road, Ford has not issued a recall. Neither has the automaker warned vehicle owners about the fire hazard. Having dealt with Ford in other cases, that really doesn’t come as a surprise.
In the appeal, Ford was contesting a decision by the trial judge to punish the automaker for refusing to turn over records about crash tests it had conducted on that model. Ford contended the documents should remain confidential as attorney-client communications. The trial judge ruled that if the company wouldn’t supply the files, then the jury should consider that an admission that the seats and fuel tank were defectively designed. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, concluded the trial judge was acting within his authority. It was stated in the court’s decision:
Specifically, the requested evidence documented past car-to-car crash tests conducted by Ford on a line of vehicles that included the Mercury Marquis, and that had similar fuel tank locations and performance as the Mercury Marquis driven by Ms. Gibson at the time of the incident involving (the other) car. As evidence that could have shown Ford’s prior, direct knowledge of fuel system, car door, and seat back design problems in car-to-car collisions such as the one that resulted in Ms. Gibson’s death, we cannot say that the trial court clearly abused its discretion in concluding that Gibson had a substantial need for these documents.
Anne Marie Gibson was traveling through Clarke County, Georgia, in February 1999 when a Toyota truck slammed into the rear of her 1985 Mercury Marquis, leading to Ms. Gibson’s death at the scene. Ford’s design of Ms. Gibson’s Marquis made the fuel tank too vulnerable and the design of a trailer hitch manufactured by co-defendant Draw-Tite involved dangerous bolts that punctured the tank, resulting in the fire. George W. Fryholfer, an Atlanta lawyer from the Butler law firm¬, represented the plaintiff in this case and did a very good job.
Source: Athens Herald Banner
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