Ford wins $31 Millon Bronco II Roll Over Case

Ford Bronco II

Ford wins new trial in $31 million SUV rollover case

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Bloomberg) — Ford Motor Co. won a new trial in a lawsuit over brain injuries suffered by a teenager in a Bronco II rollover accident that resulted in a $31 million jury award against the automaker.

The South Carolina Supreme Court found a judge overseeing Jesse Branham III’s case allowed the teen’s lawyers to use inadmissible evidence to convince jurors Ford officials knew the sport-utility vehicle was defectively designed and had a propensity for rolling over.

The judge also shouldn’t have allowed Branham’s attorneys to offer evidence of Ford executives’ pay when seeking punitive damages against the automaker during the 2006 trial, the court said.

“The admission of this evidence was error and highly prejudicial,” the state’s highest court said in an Aug. 16 ruling.

Branham’s case was one of 12 verdicts against the automaker involving rollovers of the company’s vehicles stretching back to June 2004, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Juries ordered Ford to pay a total of $568 million in damages over the accidents. The teen’s verdict also was one of the largest jury awards in 2006 against an automaker, according to the data.

Branham was disappointed with the appellate court’s decision, said Ronnie Crosby, a Hampton, S.C.-based lawyer for the family.

‘Ample evidence’

“We believe there is ample evidence to demonstrate the Bronco II is defective and unreasonably dangerous and we’re eager to present that evidence to another jury,” Crosby said in a phone interview Thursday.

Marcey Evans, a spokeswoman for Ford, declined to comment.

Branham, who was 17 when the jury returned its 2006 verdict, was a rear-seat passenger in a 1987 Bronco II when it flipped over on a country road in southwestern South Carolina. Branham’s parents, who sued on their son’s behalf, said the Bronco II rolled over because the sport-utility vehicle is inherently unstable.

The Hampton state-court jury awarded $16 million in actual damages and $15 million in punitive damages. Ford appealed the verdict.

The accident occurred after the driver, Cheryl Jane Hale, turned to look at children in the back seat of the Bronco, according to the appellate court decision. The vehicle began drifting off the road and she steered hard to the left, causing the SUV to roll, the filing shows.

“No one was wearing a seatbelt,” Justice John W. Kittredge noted in the ruling.

Design allegations

Branham’s family alleged Ford knew the Bronco was defectively designed and had a tendency to roll over. The teen’s lawyers produced internal Ford documents showing a debate about the suspension system and called a former Ford executive to testify about rollover concerns, according to the court ruling.

The family’s attorneys also introduced evidence about rollover problems that postdated the Bronco’s 1986 manufacture date, Kittredge noted. The trial judge should have barred that evidence under state law, he added.

The trial judge also erred in failing to bar evidence of similar accidents from being presented to jurors, Kittredge said.

Kittredge noted South Carolina’s highest court threw out an $18 million jury award to a woman who alleged her Ford Explorer accelerated suddenly when she engaged the vehicle’s cruise- control option. The court overturned the award in March because the judge in that case erroneously allowed an expert to testify about cruise-control problems in other Explorers.

‘Passion and prejudice’

Finally, Branham’s lawyers wrongfully appealed to “the passion and prejudice of the jury” when arguing for punitive damages award, Kittredge added.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Ford’s appeal of a $55 million award to a California woman who was paralyzed when her Explorer rolled over. The ruling forced Ford to pay the largest punitive award ever upheld on appeal in California state court.

via Automotive News
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