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Ford Motor Co. is not just a “blue oval,” the company’s attorney told Fulton County, Ga., jurors during the second phase of a product liability trial Wednesday. A day earlier, jurors awarded $33 million in a case that stemmed from a defective seat latch in a Lincoln LS. Ford attorney Donald H. Dawson Jr. sought restraint as jurors prepared to consider punitive damages. The jury must have heeded his words: After plaintiffs’ counsel suggested punitive damages of slightly more than $100 million, the jurors assessed Ford just $13.9 million in punitives. Dawson, of Dawson & Clark in Detroit, had emphasized that Ford provides jobs for many people, supports shareholders through dividends and gives to charities. The compensatory damages alone took back 7 percent of Ford’s profit from last year, he said, and that figure is enough to get the company’s attention. Even so, he added, Ford’s engineers did not act with malice or negligence in designing the Lincoln LS. “This is not a case where Ford chose cheap parts,” Dawson told the jury. “They were working on this. Did they fail? In your opinion, yes. But, they were trying.” Dawson made his case to a jury that late Tuesday afternoon had awarded compensatory damages to cover the medical costs, pain and suffering, and future lost wages of a little girl who became paralyzed when the rear seat back in her mother’s car allegedly collapsed on her in an accident. Jurors reached the verdict in 6 1/2 hours, following a 13-day trial. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter presided over the case. Sasser v. Ford Motor Co., No. 2003CV68680 (Fult. Super. filed April 22, 2003). Ford attorneys had argued that the little girl was actually sitting in the front seat when her mother crossed the centerline into oncoming traffic and that the girl’s injuries were caused by an air bag. But the jury apparently chose to believe the plaintiffs’ version. “It became obvious to the jury that this is truly a safety defect that paralyzed a 6-year-old child,” said the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Andrew M. Scherffius III of Scherffius, Ballard, Still & Ayres. “Secondly, it became obvious from the evidence that Ford has known about this problem for many years.” A HEAD-ON COLLISION The case stems from a June 2000 accident in Early County, Ga., in which Kelsey Sasser, 6 years old at the time, was left paralyzed. According to the plaintiffs, the girl was a back seat passenger in a 2000 Ford Lincoln LS driven by her mother. The car crossed the centerline of Old Lucille Road and collided head-on with a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Upon impact, the rear driver’s side seat back in the Lincoln LS collapsed forward onto Kelsey. As a result, the 6-year-old fractured her spine and became permanently disabled. The plaintiffs’ contended that because of a design defect in the Lincoln LS, the latch on the rear driver’s side seat back does not always clamp properly when the seat is placed in the upright position. Lawyers for the plaintiffs showered jurors with more than 20 internal Ford documents that discussed problems with the rear seat latch in the Lincoln LS. Scherffius said Ford knew about a potential defect in the latch as far back as 1993. The week before the model went into production in April 1999, Ford engineers discussed the issue of “latch engagement,” according to the company’s documents. Seven months later, problems with the rear latch ranked second in warranty claims for the Lincoln LS. After the courtroom deputy announced the jury’s verdict Tuesday afternoon, the girl’s mother, Rhonda Sasser, began weeping and rested her hands on the plaintiffs’ table. She had to be helped out of the courtroom by a paralegal from Scherffius, Ballard as the attorneys began to discuss the charge for punitive damages. When the trial ended on Wednesday, she went into the hallway and hugged some of the jurors as they were leaving. FRONT OR BACK SEAT? During the trial, attorneys for Ford said that at the time of the wreck Kelsey Sasser was seated in the front seat and wearing a seat belt with the shoulder harness tucked behind her. Ford’s attorneys said the passenger side air bag deployed during the collision, and the little girl became injured as her body lurched forward, and received a blow to the back from the expanding air bag. They offered testimony from witnesses who saw Kelsey in the front seat of the car following the wreck. Scherffius countered by saying the girl climbed into the front seat after receiving the blow to her back. The emergency medical technician who removed the girl from the car said she moved all four limbs right after the accident, and Scherffius noted that doctors were not able to determine the full extent of Kelsey’s injuries until two days after the wreck. Medical experts testified that accident victims sometimes can move their limbs immediately after a traffic wreck and become paralyzed later. After the trial, one of the jurors, Jerry Sumarlin, said he simply found the plaintiffs’ version of the accident more plausible. “After you read the evidence, you do come to the conclusion that she was in the back seat,” he said. Another juror, Vincent Sanders, said the panel reached its initial decision against Ford after just one hour of deliberation and then spent its time discussing damages. FORD BLAMES CHILD’S MOTHER In response to the claims that Ford knew about the defect, the company’s lawyers said the rear seat back latch system in the 2000 Lincoln LS had been the subject of complaints that called the mechanism difficult to operate. Nevertheless, the latch was capable of working properly and the Ford attorneys believe the rear seat back in Rhonda Sasser’s vehicle was latched at the time of the accident. “The sole cause-in-fact and proximate cause of Kelsey Sasser’s injuries is Mrs. Rhonda Sasser’s negligent driving coupled with her unfortunate decision to knowingly place Kelsey in the front seat, despite knowledge of hazards,” Ford’s attorneys wrote in a brief. Dawson and Kathleen A. Clark of Dawson & Clark and Philippa V. Ellis of Owen, Gleaton, Egan, Jones & Sweeney in Atlanta represented Ford. In addition to Scherffius, Tamara McDowell Ayres and Jeffrey R. Harris of Scherffius, Ballard represented the plaintiffs at trial.

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