The fighting started long before lawyers finally made their opening statements Thursday for a high stakes wrongful death product liability case against Ford Motor Co. in a Lawrenceville courthouse 30 miles northeast of Atlanta.
“I just hope the name calling and personal attacks are over,” said Ford’s lead counsel D. Alan Thomas of Huie Fernambucq & Stewart in Birmingham. Thomas said he didn’t want to have to raise objections during opening statements, but he might.
“To have a Ford lawyer say he hopes personal attacks are over is obnoxious,” replied lead plaintiffs counsel Jim Butler of Butler Wooten & Peak. “I just think it’s grotesquely unfair that Ford would make up a story and leave out the truth.”
Since jury selection began Monday, lawyers have argued over what could be asked of the jury, what could be allowed into evidence and which side was acting inappropriately. Thursday morning they argued for two hours over what could be said in opening statements. Gwinnett County State Court Judge Shawn Bratton had to make rulings on at least seven sets of objections. Then the lawyers had to rework their slide shows accordingly before the jury could be brought in for openings.
The judge noted with concern that he’d kept 14 people—the jury of 12 plus two alternates—waiting for two hours “in a room that comfortably holds about 11.”
Bratton brought the jury in at 11 a.m. instead of the planned 9 a.m. But not before he cautioned the lawyers that he would impose severe sanctions if any of them “through antics” force him into declaring a mistrial. “This needs to be a fair fight,” Bratton said. “This needs to be a final resolution.”
Melvin and Voncile Hill were killed in 2014 when their Ford F-250 rolled over. They were farmers in South Georgia on their way to Americus to pick up a tractor part when a tire blew out. Their two sons, Kim and Adam, have sued Ford, alleging that their parents died because the pickup truck’s roof crushed them.
The Hill sons have settled with the company that sold the parents a wrongly gauged tire that separated and caused the crash. But they blame the deaths on Ford for skimping on steel and knowingly making an unsafe roof, according to their complaint.
Ford argues that its roof was reasonably safe and that the company is not at fault. “Ford never accepts responsibility unless forced to do so,” Butler said in his opening statement. Before Butler was finished, Thomas had interrupted him to object four times. Two of those objections led to sidebar conferences in front of the bench. Though they were meant to be off the record, Butler could be heard saying, “It’s true,” and “That’s a fact.”
The judge seemed impatient with the objections, but he heard them.
“I’d really prefer we didn’t keepinterrupting the opening to do this,” Bratton said at one point. “Come on up one last time.”
Butler took apart what he expected to be Ford’s arguments in defense of the roof. For example, that injuries happen in rollovers because of “diving” toward the roof, rather than the roof collapsing.
“The evidence will show that this is just nonsense,” Butler said. “It’s a crazy argument.” Butler told the jury that the funeral home director noted that the couple’s necks were broken and the backs of their heads were injured because the roof collapsed. The defense theory of “diving” would have resulted in injury to the top of the head.
Thomas had objected to mentioning the funeral home director, who has “no medical expertise.” But Butler successfully argued that the observations were obvious.
“This is not rocket science,” he said.
Butler finished at 12:30 p.m. The judge let the jury go to lunch and tried to let the lawyers go then, too. But they argued a few minutes over other points first.
When they returned at 1:30 p.m., it was Thomas’ turn.
“We’re not proud,” he began. “Nobody’s proud that Mr. and Mrs. Hill lost their life in this tragic accident. From what I know, Mr. and Mrs. Hill were nice folks.”
But, Thomas continued, the fault was not with Ford or its 2002 F-250 Super Duty pickup truck.
Among the points of contention were how fast the truck was moving and how many times it rolled. Butler said 31 mph and 1½ rolls. Thomas said 60 to 70 mph and 2½ rolls. The difference is important, because it affects how much damage the truck sustained before it stopped upside down.
Thomas called it a “serious, serious” crash. Butler said it’s something the Hills could have survived, if the roof were as strong as it should be.
“We will prove the Ford is safe and that the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Hill are not our fault,” Thomas told the jury, “No vehicle is injury-proof. No roof is crush-proof.”
When the openings were finished at 3:15 p.m., Bratton took the jury outside to view the truck on the courthouse property.
Butler said he expected to present expert testimony Friday. The trial is expected to last three weeks.
The case is Hill v. Ford, No. 16 C 04179-2.