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A Warren County, N.J., jury cleared Ford Motor Company in a wrongful-death suit that alleged a design defect caused a door jam that prevented a New Jersey state trooper from escaping his Crown Victoria patrol car as an assailant was firing at him. The Dec. 18 verdict followed a two-week trial before Judge John Coyle Jr. The trooper, Scott Gonzalez, 35, was fatally shot on Oct. 24, 1997, by the driver of a pickup truck he was pursuing on a rural road in Mansfield Township. The other driver U-turned, rammed the left front corner of Gonzalez’s car at 30 mph, stepped out of the truck and fired two shots through the patrol car’s windshield. Gonzalez was struck in the head and abdomen but returned fire until his gun jammed. The gunman then moved to the left side of the trooper’s car and fired four shots at close range, killing Gonzalez. When backup officers arrived, the patrol car’s driver-side door was ajar about 10 inches but would not open any more. The gunman, Samuel Shipps Jr. of Knowlton Township, shot himself accidentally at the scene and later died. The Crown Victoria, popular with police departments, has been the subject of frequent litigation over alleged design defects, most frequently involving the steering system or gas tank. Dennis Donnelly, representing the trooper’s wife Maureen Gonzalez, argued the defect was that the car’s heavy front fender was pushed back into the door upon impact instead of crumpling. He said Ford had notice of the defect because in two offset crash tests conducted in the early 1990s, the doors became stuck. Ford maintained that conditions of those tests were dissimilar to Gonzalez’s crash. “Their theory was that the front doors jammed in a mild to moderately severe collision,” says Ford’s attorney, James Feeney. “The nut of it was that door openability was an extremely important safety issue and if the car had been designed differently the door would have been openable. They tried, but they could not get that out to the jury.” Feeney, of Dykema Gossett in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was assisted by James Dobis of Livingston’s Dobis, Russell & Peterson. Donnelly says he thinks the jury did not grasp his “counterintuitive” theory that a lightweight fender would have been safer than the Crown Victoria’s sturdy one. The lack of a federal standard for crashworthiness in front-end impacts hurt him, too. “It’s unfortunate that the jury felt there has to be a government regulation,” he says, adding he will not appeal. Donnelly, a partner with Blume, Goldfaden, Berkowitz, Donnelly, Fried & Forte in Chatham, also sued the maker of the trooper’s gun, Heckler & Koch of Sterling, Va., which settled for $50,000.

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