The Georgia Court of Appeals tossed out a Ford Motor Co. appeal Wednesday of sanctions against the automaker for violating pretrial orders in a contentious roof crush case that ended in a mistrial last April.
The two-page unsigned order sends the case back to Gwinnett County State Court Judge Shawn Bratton without disturbing his ruling that Ford be punished by preclusion of its defense on charges the company knowingly made an unsafe roof.
The appeals court rejected Ford’s legal team’s attempt to cast the sanction as a contempt punishment, which would have allowed for immediate review without the trial judge’s approval. The product liability wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the sons of Georgia farmers Melvin and Voncile Hill, who died in a rollover crash in their F-250 Super Duty pickup truck. Their sons, Kim and Adam, alleged their parents were killed by a faulty roof.
Ford defended its roof and shifted the blame to a defective tire and proper doses of prescription medicine taken by Melvin Hill, a teetotaling Baptist on his way to pick up a part to fix their tractor.
“There is no mention of contempt in the court’s order until the very end, when the order states that Ford’s attorney, who was granted pro hoc vice status, would be required in a subsequent proceeding, to show cause why he shouldn’t be held in contempt and his privilege to practice rescinded as a result of his conduct during trial,” the appeals court said. “This order, therefore, is properly construed as an interlocutory discovery sanction imposed under OCGA § 9-11-37 (b), which is not subject to direct appeal.”
The order refers to Ford’s lead trial counsel, D. Alan Thomas of Huie Fernambucq & Stewart in Birmingham, Alabama.
Thomas could not be reached immediately for comment.
The Hills’ lead counsel is Jim Butler of Butler Wooten & Peak of Columbus, Atlanta and Savannah.
“Kim and Adam Hill are pleased to get back to trial,” Butler said Wednesday evening. ”Something has happened in auto products cases. For some reason, automakers are more defiant than ever of court orders and the law. Ford’s appeal was purely frivolous. Yet it won six months of delay after it avoided a verdict by causing a mistrial—at no cost to Ford.”
The briefs show Ford’s team describing Bratton’s sanctions as civil capital punishment and equating them with a contempt charge, which can be appealed. Butler has called that strategy “nonsense” and a delay tactic, asserting that Ford should not be allowed to appeal until the case can be tried again and a verdict reached.
“In an effort to avoid dismissal, Ford urges this court to entertain this appeal under Waldrip v. Head, 272 Ga. 572, 574-577 (1) (532 SE2d 380) (2000),” the Court of Appeals said. “That case gave the Supreme Court authority to consider ‘on rare occasions’ an interlocutory appeal even if the trial court denies a certificate of immediate review. Id. at 575 (1). But the ruling in Waldrip is limited to ‘exceptional cases that involve an issue of great concern, gravity, and importance to the public and no timely opportunity for appellate review.’”
The appeals court concluded, “This is not such a case.”
The case at the Court of Appeals is Ford v. Hill, No. A19A1055.
The case in Gwinnett is Hill v. Ford, No. 16 C 04179-2.