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A Texas jury has hit Ford Motor Co. with a $225 million judgment, exclusive of any punitive damages, to compensate the families of two people killed when they were ejected from an overturning pickup truck. The recent judgment is one of the largest ever compensation-only products liability judgments, said Jeff Wigington. He and David Rumley of Corpus Christi, Texas’ Wigington Rumley represented the family of Paul Alaniz, 35, the driver of the truck. Alaniz was at the wheel of a Ford F-150 extended-cab pickup carrying three passengers when he lost control of the vehicle in July 2001 while driving on a remote stretch of State Highway 2285, about 100 miles south of Corpus Christi at about 2:30 a.m. According to testimony at trial, the truck overturned on the passenger side and rolled like a barrel, overturning three times until it came to a stop upright. Wigington said that on the first rollover the roof on the driver side collapsed, causing the latch on the driver’s door to fail. On the second rollover, the latch on the rear passenger-side door failed, causing both doors to open completely, Wigington alleged. Centrifugal force ejected Alaniz and Laura Benavides, 20, the passenger directly behind him. Ford released a statement calling the fatal accident “another tragic reminder that people should not drink and drive and that seatbelts can save lives only when they are worn.” Leading Ford’s defense team was Rosewell Page III of McGuireWoods in Richmond, Va. Page said Ford was reviewing options before filing an appeal. “This accident is a tragedy and a stark reminder of what happens when you don’t wear seat belts,” he said. William J. Tinning, who along with Bryan K. Harris of Corpus Christi’s Harris, Mejia & Tinning, represented the Benavides family, said Alaniz’s blood alcohol level was 0.04 percent, half the Texas limit for drunken driving. The blood alcohol level may have resulted not from drinking, but from a natural fermentation process called the “still effect,” caused by the Texas heat, in the eight hours between Alaniz’s death and when his body arrived at a refrigerated morgue, Tinning said. “He absolutely was not drunk,” he said. Wigington said the doors opened during the accident because Ford removed the center roof pillar when it expanded the F-150 with a four-door crew cab. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety gave the F-150 a “poor” rating based on its crash tests, during which the passenger side doors opened at least partially because of impact, Wigington noted. Wigington said his most compelling evidence was a videotape, obtained during discovery, of the passenger-side doors on an F-150 springing open during a rollover crash test conducted by Ford. “The truck is defective because the roof is weak and the latches are inadequate,” Wigington charged. No one in the truck was wearing seat belts, but two unbelted occupants on the passenger side of the truck cab, where the doors remained shut, were not ejected. Neither was seriously injured. The jury awarded $110 million to Alaniz’s mother and $115 million to the Benavides family. Wigington said the deaths were so plainly devastating to the two families that the plaintiffs did not contest the defense when it argued the evidence did not support punitive damages. Alaniz was an only child who lived with his mother until age 32 and was happily her daily companion, Wigington said. His mother, a widow, was childless at the time of his birth because none of her previous children had survived infancy. Benevides v. K.A. Childs Motors Inc. and Ford Motor Co., No. DC-01-195 (Duval Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.).

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