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In what is believed to be the largest personal injury award ever upheld on appeal nationwide, a California appellate court has reinstated a $290 million punitive damages award against Ford Motor Co. California’s 5th District Court of Appeal, located in Fresno, imposed the award Friday by reversing a Stanislaus County judge’s decision that granted the giant auto manufacturer a new trial on punitive damages based on alleged juror misconduct. The court also said Ford’s behavior was “despicable” and insinuated that the company had built a killer car. Stockton, Calif., lawyer Laurence Drivon, who represents two children who survived a 1993 automobile crash that killed their parents and one sibling, said he believes the personal injury award is the largest ever affirmed by a court “in the history of American jurisprudence.” “I can’t find a bigger one,” the Drivon & Tabak partner said. Ford’s lawyers didn’t dispute Drivon’s statement, but vowed to appeal the court’s decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. “The court of appeal’s decision is patently wrong and does a grave injustice to Ford,” Theodore Boutrous Jr., a partner in Los Angeles’ Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said Friday. “It violates multiple due process and state law rules, and conflicts with numerous California and U.S. Supreme Court decisions on juror misconduct, punitive damages and due process. “The trial court, based on a wealth of evidence,” he continued, “found that serious acts of juror misconduct infested the jury deliberations with passion and prejudice, fundamentally tainting the trial.” Jurors have awarded larger punitive damages in only one other personal injury case, but that hasn’t been resolved on appeal yet. In 1999, while the Ford case was being deliberated, L.A. County jurors hit General Motors Corp. with $4.8 billion in punitive damages in a personal injury case involving six people badly burned when the fuel tank of their 1979 Chevrolet Malibu exploded during a rear-end collision. The trial court judge reduced the award to about $1 billion, which, if affirmed, would be the largest award of its kind in the country. In the Ford case, Evangelina, Maria and Juan Romo sued the company after their parents and one brother died in a car crash on Father’s Day 1993. They claimed that their dad’s used 1978 Ford Bronco — with a roof that was two-thirds fiberglass — was defectively designed. At trial in 1999, jurors awarded the three more than $6.2 million in compensatory damages, plus $290 million in punitive damages after finding that Ford had acted with malice in designing and manufacturing the vehicle and not warning buyers about the lack of rollover protection. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne later reduced the compensatory award to about $4.9 million and ordered a new trial on punitive damages because of alleged juror misconduct. During deliberations, one juror had discussed a “60 Minutes II” news story about fires in older Ford Mustangs; another told about a dream in which she, her children and all the other jurors’ children died in a Bronco crash while Ford executives stood by chanting, “Where’s the proof?” The 5th District, however, reversed Beauchesne, saying the evidence wasn’t sufficient to prove juror misconduct. “Despite defendant’s consistent attempts to portray this as a case of jurors run amok,” Justice Steven Vartabedian wrote in Romo v. Ford Motor Co., F034241, “the misconduct in the present case does not begin to approach the pervasive and insistent misconduct that resulted in reversal in [other cases].” Justices Timothy Buckley and Dennis Cornell concurred. The justices also had harsh words for Ford Motor Co.’s arguments that its actions were not malicious or despicable. “The evidence supports the jury’s conclusion that defendant willfully and consciously ignored the dangers to human life inherent in the 1978 Bronco as designed, resulting in the deaths of three persons,” they wrote. “Such corporate conduct can constitute involuntary manslaughter … and, when viewed in the context of a mass-produced vehicle sold to the public, certainly is seriously reprehensible conduct.” The court also said the punitive damages are small compared to Ford’s after-tax profits of $20 million a day and its 1999 net worth of $25 billion. “That damages award is 1.2 percent of defendant’s net worth,” Vartabedian wrote, “and nine days of its profits at the time of trial.” Redwood City, Calif., lawyer Joseph Carcione Jr., who represented one of the plaintiffs, said he was pleased with the ruling. “This,” he added, “is probably the most vicious and vile car ever manufactured by Ford Motor Co. and was done solely for the purpose of rushing this car to market.”

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