Ford Motor Co. says it will fight a Cobb County, Ga., jury’s award of $3 million to the children of a woman killed when a gravel-laden truck weighing nearly 30 tons smashed into the back of her Ford Tempo, sending her down an embankment.
According to the attorneys for Lynne and Lathy Reese, the 2002 death of their 76-year-old mother was due to Ford’s use of a “yielding seat,” designed — according to Ford’s filings — to absorb the shock of a rear-end collision and lessen the possibility of injury from a more rigid seat.When the truck hit her car, said plaintiffs’ attorney Peter A. Law, the seat broke free and Mary Reese pitched backward, forcing her head into the rear seat and incurring fatal brain and spinal injuries.Her family sued the company for negligence in designing the seat.”We put up 72 other similar incidents in which these seats collapsed,” said Law, who led a plaintiffs team including his associate, E. Michael Moran; and Peter J. Daughtery and Dustin T. Brown of Columbus, Ga.’s Daughtery, Crawford, Fuller & Brown.Prior to trial, the gravel company’s insurer paid the $500,000 limit of its policy, and was not a party to the case, said Law.Ford has a mixed record of defending such suits, said Law, but the record indicates that the automaker followed a “two schools of thought” strategy regarding seat design.”One school held that yielding seats provided the most protection, the other that stronger, rigidified seats would provide the most protection,” says the consolidated pre-trial order for the case.Over the course of a two-week trial before Cobb State Court Judge Melodie H. Clayton, those arguments were advanced in a “battle of the experts,” said Law, including videotaped depositions by now-deceased Ford engineers concerning the dangers posed by the yielding seats, which were brought to national attention in 1992 on the television program “60 Minutes.”Ford stopped making the Tempo in 1994, the model year of the car Reese was driving.Ford’s team was led by Donald H. Dawson Jr., Kathleen A. Clark and Dwight Klemczak of Detroit’s Dawson and Clark, and Philippa V. Ellis and Richard J. Baker of Atlanta’s Owen, Gleaton, Egan, Jones & Sweeney.The defense lawyers referred questions to Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley, who forwarded a statement reading, in part: “We sympathize with the Reese family for the loss of their mother. It was completely unfair, however, to blame Ford for her injuries and death which happened because her vehicle was rear ended by the inattentive driver of a gravel truck weighing nearly 60,000 pounds.”The jury deliberated for three days, said Law, before awarding $3 million in damages to Reese’s survivors and estate Dec. 11; there were no punitive damages awarded.The verdict will be appealed, wrote Kinley.”Ford was denied a fair trial because plaintiffs were allowed to present irrelevant and highly prejudicial evidence at trial and Ford was not allowed to present all of its evidence that showed that the vehicle’s seat was reasonably safe,” she wrote. “Ford will appeal this verdict and expects this verdict to be remedied on appeal.”The case is Lynne B. Reese et al. v. Ford Motor Co., No. 2003A 10881-1 (Cobb St. Ct.).