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This fall, family members of a girl who was paralyzed in a car accident and then won a $47.7 million verdict against Ford Motor Co. faced a choice. They could wait for the Georgia Supreme Court to decide whether to take up Ford’s appeal, or they could settle the case for presumably less than what a Fulton County jury awarded last year. In its appeal, Ford’s lawyers argued that the jury accepted a version of events that defied the laws of nature. Plaintiffs lawyers said the then-6-year-old girl was restrained properly in the back seat of a Lincoln LS, but Ford claimed that was impossible because the girl had been found in the front seat by rescuers. If the justices found Ford’s claims were not of great concern, gravity or importance to the public, the full verdict would be preserved. The family decided to settle for what both sides said is a confidential sum. But because the justices apparently did not find out in time that the case had been resolved, they acted on Ford Motor Co. v. Sasser, No. S05C2083, and denied Ford’s petition for certiorari. Lawyer Jeffrey R. Harris, who represented the paralyzed girl, Kelsey Sasser, is in the rare position of knowing what would have happened had his clients made a different choice. But despite knowing the court would have saved the verdict, he said he has no regrets. Harris said Ford could have kept the case going by pursuing a due process claim before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The bottom line is it’s always better to settle a case on terms both sides are familiar with,” said Harris, who handled the case with Andrew M. Scherffius III and Tamara McDowell Ayres of Scherffius, Ballard, Still & Ayres in Atlanta. Albert M. Pearson III, a lawyer with Moraitakis, Kushel, Pearson & Gardner who has experience in product liability cases, said the plaintiffs attorneys probably wish they had waited for the state Supreme Court decision. But Pearson added that because the plaintiffs lawyers had the upper hand in settlement negotiations, they probably got a significant part of the $47.7 million. Harris and his colleagues were “in a pretty damn good position,” Pearson said, because they already had won a decision at the Georgia Court of Appeals. “The settlement discussions could have been initiated by Ford because [Ford] might have been concerned about not getting cert, and wanted to take advantage of what minimal leverage they had” while the decision was pending, Pearson added. Ford’s lawyers, Teresa W. Roseborough of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and Michael J. Bowers of Balch & Bingham, could not be reached. FRONT SEAT OR BACK? The case started in 2000, when Sasser was paralyzed from the waist down after the 2000 Lincoln LS driven by her mother was involved in an accident. Sasser’s attorneys claimed she was wearing her safety belt in the back seat when a seat latch malfunctioned in the accident, causing Sasser’s seat to collapse, lurch forward and injure her. Ford’s lawyers argued that the plaintiffs’ explanation for the injury wasn’t believable. Ford pointed to witnesses’ testimony that they found Sasser in the front seat after the accident. Ford’s lawyers said that Sasser must have been in the front seat when the collision occurred, because she was injured too seriously to have crawled there. Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley reiterated the company’s view that “there was evidence showing that this tragedy occurred not because of any defect in the vehicle but because the child was improperly restrained in the front seat.” In March 2004, a Fulton County Superior Court jury returned a $47.7 million verdict against Ford, including $33.8 million in compensatory damages. Ford appealed, seeking a new trial. In July 2005, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the jury verdict. Ford Motor Co. v. Sasser, 274 Ga. App. 459. The three-judge panel said it would not second-guess the jury’s conclusions about the facts. “This contradictory evidence presented a classic question for the jury to resolve,” said Presiding Judge G. Alan Blackburn, writing for the panel. Judges Debra H. Bernes and John J. Ellington concurred. Ford responded by asking the state Supreme Court to hear the case. LAWS OF NATURE In its petition for certiorari, Ford said it deserved a new trial because Georgia law does not allow a jury to decide that the impossible has happened. Ford repeated that the badly injured child could not have crawled from the back seat to the front seat. Besides a spinal fracture, she suffered a head injury, two broken pelvic bones and bleeding in her lungs, according to Ford’s petition. “If a Georgia jury determined by its verdict that the Earth was flat, must the Georgia appellate courts allow such a verdict to stand?” Ford asked. “The jury found that Kelsey accomplished the incredible.” Ford supported its argument with Patton v. State, 117 Ga. 230, a 1903 state Supreme Court case that said, “Great physical laws of the universe are witnesses in each case, which cannot be impeached by man.” Sasser’s attorneys responded that Ford should not be allowed to reargue the facts. “Ford Motor Company’s losing of a jury trial does not mean that the jury’s verdict is inconsistent with the ‘laws of nature,’” Sasser’s attorneys wrote in asking the Supreme Court to deny Ford’s petition. “Appellate courts do not engage in the business of weighing competing evidence. That role is within the province of the jury,” they added.

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