A Georgia jury returned a verdict for compensatory and punitive damages last month against Ford Motor Company. The case involved a 2002 Explorer. Lynn Wheeler, a 58-year-old woman, was sitting in the rear center seat, wearing the lap-only seat belt Ford installed for that seating position in the vehicle.
Ms. Wheeler was headed to church on Christmas morning in 2005 with four other family members in the vehicle. En route, they were hit head-on by an Eagle Talon. In the crash, the two-person bench seat in which Lynn Wheeler was sitting broke and began to fold down and forward. The lap belt allowed her head to strike the front seat back. She suffered a C1-C2 subluxation and is now a quadriplegic who is dependent on a ventilator. None of the other four occupants of the Explorer received any serious injury.
It was alleged in the lawsuit that the “occupant restraint system” for the rear center was defective. The seat breaking and also the way the seat and structures and lap belt all interacted to create a danger and defect in this particular vehicle. That was the focus at trial. The trial judge denied Ford’s Geier-preemption motions because the claims were not pled as a simple failure to have a shoulder belt. The jury returned a verdict for $17 million in compensatory damages, and checked “Yes” on punitive damages. A confidential settlement was reached just before the jury “knocked on the door” with its Phase Two verdict which would have had the amount of punitive damages. The Atlanta firm of Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer, LLP, represented the Plaintiffs and did an outstanding job.
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