Gwinnett County State Court Judge Shawn Bratton has denied Ford Motor Co.’s demand that he recuse himself from presiding over future litigation in a highly contentious roof crush product liability case that ended in a mistrial April 6.
Ford lawyers took steps Tuesday to appeal the order.
Bratton declared the mistrial after lawyers on both sides requested it, accusing each other of violating court rulings. Less than a week later, on April 12, Ford asked for a new judge in the next round, accusing Bratton of “one-sided rulings,” “abdicating judicial responsibility” and “refusal to at least admonish” opposing counsel for allegedly improper conduct.
“Deep into a trial involving automotive products-liability claims stemming from the tragic deaths of Melvin Hill and Voncile Hill in a rollover accident, the Honorable Shawn F. Bratton crossed a line,” Ford’s motion to recuse said in the opening line. Ford alleged that Bratton “openly assumed the role” of adviser and ally to the other side.
Kim and Adam Hill, the surviving sons of Melvin and Voncile Hill, filed the lawsuit alleging their parents died because their F-250 pickup roof was weak and crushed them in a rollover caused by a tire failure. Ford’s lawyers have defended the roof and pointed to other factors as the cause of death, including the number of times the truck rolled.
Bratton issued a two-page order dated June 6 denying Ford’s recusal motion. Bratton said Ford “complained of numerous factual and legal rulings” made during and before the doomed three-week trial.
Under Georgia law, “judicial rulings adverse to a party are not disqualifying,” Bratton wrote. “The alleged bias must stem from an extra-judicial source and result in an opinion based on something other than what the judge learned from participating in the case.”
Bratton said his review of the case found “nothing to show bias stemming from an extra-judicial source.”
Bratton also cited the Code of Judicial Conduct in ruling that he found no legally sufficient grounds to show “a reasonable person might conclude that the judge harbors a bias, stemming from an extra-judicial source, which is of such a nature and intensity that it would impede the exercise of impartial judgment.”
Ford’s lead counsel is D. Alan Thomas of Huie Fernambucq & Stewart in Birmingham, Alabama, working with Paul Malek of his firm. Their team includes Michael Eady of Thompson Coe Cousins & Irons of Austin, Texas. Their Atlanta lawyers are Michael Boorman and Philip Henderson of Huff, Powell & Bailey.
Eady sent Bratton a letter Tuesday asking the judge to sign a certificate of immediate review. “because of the importance” of the decision to the case.
“If the court’s ruling is erroneous, it will lead to a retrial of this litigation—a costly drain on the time and resources of the parties, the court, and the prospective jurors,” Eady wrote.
The Hills’ lead counsel is Jim Butler of Butler Wooten & Peak of Columbus and Atlanta. Butler’s legal team includes Gerald Davidson Jr. of Mahaffey Pickens Tucker in Lawrenceville; Brandon Peak, David Rohwedder, Christopher McDaniel and Ramsey Prather of Butler Wooten; and Michael Gray of Walker, Hulbert, Gray & Moore in Perry. The Hill lawyers argued against Ford’s motion to recuse Bratton.
“Ford knew its recusal motion was legally baseless—its lawyers can read the law,” Butler said in an email Tuesday. “That motion was filed solely to try to keep the judge from imposing the sanctions. … I cannot imagine any judge would fall for that.”
The case is Hill v. Ford, No. 16 C 04179-2.