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With its latest victory in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the Ford Motor Co. finishes the year of 2003 with a perfect 7-0 record in trials of products liability suits brought by drivers who had rollover accidents in Ford Explorers, a lawyer for Ford said Thursday. In Flowers v. Ford, a seven-member jury rejected the claims of a 23-year-old computer programmer who was left quadriplegic and lost his left leg after a January 2001 accident. The jury apparently concluded that plaintiff Rashad Flowers was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident — an issue that was a key dispute in the trial because Flowers claimed that the seatbelt was defective and had disengaged on impact. Flowers was found to be negligent by the jury, and Ford was cleared of any wrongdoing on both strict liability and negligence claims. The verdict was a victory for attorneys William J. Conroy, Thomas M. Hinchey and Kristen E. Dennison of Campbell Campbell Edwards & Conroy. Conroy said in an interview Thursday that Ford never made any offer to settle the case, and that the plaintiff’s lawyers never reduced their settlement demand of $18 million. Plaintiffs attorneys Michael J. Olley and Lawrence A. Katz of Coffey & Kaye have filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that an expert witness for Ford made disparaging remarks about plaintiffs lawyers that were intended to “poison and inflame the jury.” According to court papers, Flowers was returning home from work at Lockheed Corp. and had just exited the Betsy Ross Bridge when he lost control of his 1997 Ford Explorer on Bartram Avenue in Philadelphia. When Flowers hit an eight-inch curb, the vehicle rolled over at least once and possibly as many as three times. One of the wheels was also shorn from the SUV when it hit the curb. Rescue workers found Flowers outside the vehicle. In his suit, Flowers did not allege that the Explorer is too prone to rollover accidents. Instead, the suit alleged that two design defects had exacerbated the injuries Flowers suffered. The suit said the seatbelt disengaged due to the force of Flowers’ hip — a phenomenon known as “inertial release” — and that the excessive crushing of the roof caused Flowers to sustain a spinal cord injury. The two-week trial before Senior U.S. District Judge Clifford Scott Green was largely a battle of the experts. An economist testified that the combined costs of Flowers’ lost earnings and past and future medical care was more than $9 million. The plaintiffs were also seeking punitive damages, but that claim was dismissed by Green at the close of the plaintiff’s case. Plaintiff’s expert Donald Eisentraut testified that the Explorer’s side-release seatbelt was defective because it can disengage due to the force exerted by a passenger’s body. Eisentraut told the jury about laboratory tests he had performed in which the seatbelt detached when struck from the side with a pendulum. But Ford’s expert, Edward Paddock — an engineer and former Ford employee who is also an attorney — told the jury that Eisentraut’s lab tests were faulty because they hadn’t simulated the actual conditions of an accident. Paddock testified that the safety of such side-release seatbelts was studied in 1992 by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and that the government agency concluded that the problem was not worthy of a full investigation. Plaintiffs lawyers objected to remarks Paddock made about the NHTSA inquiry when he said that it was prompted by complaints from the Institute for Injury Analysis — a group that Paddock said is composed of plaintiffs lawyers who “make their living suing automobile manufacturers.” Green refused to instruct the jury to disregard the remark, saying the plaintiffs had opened the door to such testimony by introducing evidence that the NHTSA had relied solely on auto industry studies in making its decision. Now, in a motion for a new trial, the plaintiffs lawyers argue that Paddock’s remark was unfairly prejudicial and irrelevant, and that Green erred by not striking it from the record and giving the jury a curative instruction. Noting that Paddock is a former Ford employee and a lawyer, the plaintiffs lawyers argue that his remark was “part of a calculated effort to poison and inflame the jury against Mr. Flowers and his counsel.” Accident reconstruction experts also testified for both sides. The plaintiff’s reconstruction expert testified that when Flowers hit the curb, the vehicle decelerated by about 15 mph, reducing its speed from 47 to 32, and that the SUV rolled just once. But a defense expert testified that the deceleration was much less — reducing the speed by just three mph, from 50 to 47 — and that the vehicle rolled three times. Those disputes were significant because Flowers’ lawyers argued that the extent of the crushing of the roof in a single rollover was excessive, and that the deceleration had provided the inertia that caused Flowers’ hip to disengage the seatbelt. Conroy said the plaintiff’s expert had conceded on cross examination that, if the deceleration was as slight as the defense contended, the force would not have been enough to disengage the belt. The defense also set out to prove that Flowers was not wearing the seatbelt at the time of the accident. Flowers himself testified that he was wearing the seatbelt, and family members and friends told the jury that they knew him to be an ardent seatbelt wearer. But a defense expert said Flowers did not have marks on his body from the seatbelt, and that witnesses at the scene of the accident said the seatbelt was fully stowed in its resting position. One defense expert testified that the damage done to the vehicle in the accident included damage to the front seat and arm rest that would have made it impossible for the seatbelt to return to its resting position if it had been in use at the time of impact. In an accident, the expert said, a seatbelt’s retraction mechanism does not begin to work until the car stops moving. Conroy said the verdict means that Ford has an unblemished record in its trials of suits over the Explorer. All seven cases that went to trial in 2003 resulted in defense verdicts, he said. Conroy said he was counsel only in the Flowers case, but that in 2002 he also won a four-month trial in California in a suit that alleged the Explorer is too prone to rollover accidents.

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