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A Florida jury has ordered the Ford Motor Co. to pay $15.4 million to a 12-year-old girl who suffered severe brain damage and paralysis in a rollover accident in a Ford Econoline van. The jury in Miami’s 11th Circuit Court found Ford manufactured a defective tire valve for the van, which holds up to 15 people. The valve failed, causing the tire to lose air, overheat and blow out, resulting in the rollover, the jury found. The initial award was $30.7 million. It was cut in half by the jury for comparative negligence because the child was not wearing a seat belt. Jimenez v. Ford Motor Co., No. 99-143-53-CA09. An attorney for Ford, Ben Reid of Tampa, Fla.-based Carlton Fields, said that no evidence was presented to show that the tire valve was defective. The automaker intends to appeal the jury’s award, the attorney said. The award comes as Ford is facing hundreds of personal injury lawsuits over rollovers by another of its products, the Explorer sport utility vehicle. The company blames those accidents on defective Firestone tires, while Firestone blames the design of the Explorer. ROLLOVER CONCERNS The Miami case was not related to the Explorer suits, said Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes. She said that the tire involved in the Florida accident was not a Firestone. But the safety of Econoline vans — and similar large vans made by Ford and DaimlerChrysler A.G. — has been questioned by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. It recently reported that the vans are three times as likely to roll over when carrying 10 or more passengers as at other times. The report came in the wake of fatal rollovers in Texas, Idaho, Arkansas and other states. In the Florida case, Ramon Jimenez rented a new Econoline van in New Jersey in May, 1999, to drive his family to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., to celebrate the 10th birthday of his daughter, Phoebe. The family members were on vacation from their home in the Philippines. There were 12 people in the van when the right rear tire failed, the driver lost control, and the van flipped. Phoebe was left in “an almost complete vegetative state, and the worst part is she is aware of her condition,” said an attorney for the family, Ervin Gonzalez of the Miami firm Colson Hicks Eidson. “Ford gave her a life sentence in her own body,” he said. Gonzalez said that the money would go to give the child the kind of care she needs. Phoebe, who is now 12, and her family are now living in Miami. The key to the three-week trial, Gonzalez said, was that the six-member jury was convinced that the tire valve failed due to human error at a Ford plant and that there was a propensity for Econolines to roll over. CONSUMER ISSUE Gonzalez said that beyond product liability and negligence, the case was also a consumer safety matter. “Ford,” he said, “better start paying attention to safety.” But Vokes, Ford’s spokeswoman, said that the tire had been punctured and the blowout had nothing to do with the valve. “No manufacturer’s defect was shown — there was no evidence of a valve problem,” Vokes asserted. Both Vokes and another attorney for Ford, John Golden of Florida’s Carlton Fields, said they believed that the jury was swayed by sympathy for the child, who was brought into court. “If I was on the jury I would have been swayed,” Vokes said. “It was a sad sight to see the child injured.” “It was a nice family and a very serious injury,” Golden agreed. “Sympathy was a big factor.” SEAT BELT AN ISSUE Ford also maintained that the child was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident, although the parents testified at trial that she indeed had been belted in. Golden said that the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon by terrorists using hijacked airliners — a disaster that has led to 344 confirmed deaths and an estimated 5,219 missing — had an impact on the trial. Golden had planned to bring in a “very important witness” who worked at a Ford dealership and would have testified that valves and tires on new vehicles are checked several times. However, the witness refused to get on a plane and fly to Florida for fear of being hijacked himself, Golden said. Also, the judge refused to delay the trial long enough to get a deposition from the witness, he said.

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