The Missouri Supreme Court has returned a lawsuit to a Missouri state court for a second trial. The suit concerns the issue of whether Ford police cruisers have a fatal fuel-system design. Ruling for Overland Park businessman Michael Nolte and the family of Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Newton, the Supreme Court found that errors by the trial judge gave Ford Motor Co. an unfair advantage during the 2005 trial.
The case arose out of a routine traffic stop by a State Trooper on May 22, 2003. Trooper Newton had pulled over Nolte for a traffic violation and they were sitting in the police cruiser as the trooper wrote a warning citation. The driver of a pickup truck, pulling an empty trailer, rammed the cruiser from behind, causing an instant explosion that killed Trooper Newton. Two passers-by pulled Nolte, who suffered serious burns, from the burning patrol car.
At trial, a jury found against the pickup driver’s employer, awarding $4 million to the Newton family and $4.5 million to Nolte and his wife. But the jury ruled in favor of Ford, rejecting arguments that the cruiser had a serious design flaw. Kent Emison, one of the lawyers who represented the Newton family, observed: “We’re convinced that Mike Newton would be alive today if there had been a safe fuel system on that patrol car.” Lawyers representing Nolte and the Newton family had argued that the fuel system’s “defective” anti-spill valve and the placement of the fuel tank behind the rear axle made the car unreasonably dangerous.
At trial, the judge ruled that the Plaintiffs’ lawyers could introduce evidence of only four prior incidents of gasoline tank explosions to show that the company knew of the problems even after it had developed an upgrade kit to install on patrol cars. But deposition testimony read to the jury by a lawyer for Ford showed that the carmaker knew of 11 such accidents after Ford introduced the upgrades. Four of these were before the Missouri accident and six afterward. But even with that evidence before the jury, the judge barred lawyers for Nolte and the Newton family from discussing all 11 accidents.
The trial judge later acknowledged at a post-trial hearing that he had been wrong, but he ruled that the outcome of the case would not have changed. The Supreme Court, finding that Nolte and the Newtons deserved a new trial, stated in the opinion:
By reading this testimony into the record, Ford’s counsel injected evidence of all 11 accidents into the case. Thus, once the accidents were in evidence, Plaintiffs were entitled to discuss all 11 accidents despite the court’s earlier ruling that only the four ‘pre-Newton’ accidents were admissible.
The case will now be retried in its entirety. It will be interesting to see if the Plaintiffs’ lawyers can change the outcome this time. Based on the evidence available on the vehicle’s design problems – including strong expert testimony – combined with the testimony from 11 similar incidents, the Plaintiffs should have a very good chance to win this case.
Source: Kansas City Star
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