FEATURED CASE OF THE MONTH FOR THE FIRM
On Friday March 12, 2010, our firm obtained a $2.75 million verdict for our clients against Ford Motor Company in a wrongful death action related to defects in the 1999 Ford Explorer. On July 22, 2007, Catherine Parker was driving her 1999 Ford Explorer when the vehicle went out of control and rolled over three times. As a result of a poorly designed roof and seat belt system, Ms. Parker was partially ejected and received fatal injuries. We filed suit in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama. against Ford alleging that the Explorer was not crashworthy because of a weak roof and a seat belt system that would not retain occupants in the vehicle during a rollover.
The evidence at trial presented by our roof expert, Steve Forrest, showed that Ms. Parker’s 1999 vehicle was a third generation Explorer known internally at Ford as the UN150. The UN150 was produced by Ford between the years 1998 and 2001. Ford claimed that the roof structure met the minimum Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 216 which only requires that a roof withstand 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle. (Recently, NHTSA found this standard to be inadequate and has increased it to three times the weight of the vehicle.) But, prior to production of the UN150, Ford never actually tested a UN150 for compliance with a FMVSS 216. Instead, Ford used testing that had been done on the previous generation of Explorer (the UN105) and engineering judgment to determine that the roof structure of the UN150 would pass FMVSS 216. In reality, six inches of steel reinforcement had been removed from the front door window frame for the UN150 which was a substantial reduction. This reduction in reinforcement actually reduced the strength of the roof by ten to 12%.
After the UN150 went into production, Tim Chen, a Ford engineer, conducted an FMVSS 216 certification test on the UN150. The Explorer failed the FMVSS 216 test. Mr. Chen began a five-month investigation to determine why the UN150 performed so poorly. Unfortunately, Mr. Chen was never made aware of the reduction of the reinforcement steel in the front door window frame. He ran a second test and the UN150 again performed poorly and barely passed FMVSS 216. In order to obtain passage on FMVSS 216, Ford altered the weight numbers associated with the test in order to get the vehicle to pass. At trial, Ford’s roof expert did not have Mr. Chen’s testing in her file and claimed it was a prototype test and should not be considered. Instead, Ford’s expert relied on the testing conducted on the UN105 to claim the UN150 was safe.
Steve Forrest conducted several drop tests showing the performance of the production and reinforced UN150 Ford Explorer. He was able to establish through that testing that the strength of the Explorer roof could have been tripled for a cost of approximately $40. His testing showed that a reinforced roof in Ms. Parker’s wreck would have crushed approximately two inches instead of ten inches.
We also proved that the seat belt system in the 1999 Explorer was defective and failed to retain Ms. Parker in the vehicle during the rollover sequence. The evidence presented showed that slack could be introduced into the belt system when the B pillar was crushed inward. Plaintiff’s expert, Steve Meyer, testified that due to the poor roof design, the seat belt system should have included a cinching latch plate or been integrated into the seat back instead of being mounted to the B pillar. Mr. Meyer also testified that performance of the seat belt could be improved if the roof was strengthened.
The jury in this case took a courageous step by finding the 1999 Explorer defective. This verdict should send a message to Ford Motor Company that it should not design its roof structures down to the minimum federal strength requirements of 1.5 times the weight of the Explorer. A roof designed to only a 1.5 strength to weight ratio is totally inadequate. It’s a shame that folks don’t have any way of knowing the roof strength of their vehicles. Instead, they have to rely on the manufacturer’s word. Ford claims the quality of its roof design is good, but in reality it’s not. The tragic results in this case are the result of a corporate strategy to increase profits at the expense of consumer safety. Our firm has a number of similar roof-crush cases currently pending with the exact same defect. Greg Allen, Cole Portis, and Ben Baker from our firm tried the case for the family and did a very good job.
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