The Georgia Court of Appeals on Wednesday once again turned back Ford Motor Co.’s appeal of sanctions levied against the automaker for violating pretrial orders in a highly contentious roof crush case that ended in a mistrial last April.
The two-page, unsigned order came in response to Ford’s motion for reconsideration of an earlier dismissal of the appeal. The 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 to charges that the company knowingly made an unsafe roof.
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.
“In an effort to avoid dismissal, Ford urges this Court to entertain this appeal under Waldrip v. Head, 272 Ga. 572 … (2000),” the court said. Waldrip established Georgia Supreme Court authority to consider “on rare occasions” an interlocutory appeal even if the trial court denies a certificate of immediate review—as Bratton did in the Hill case.
“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 Court of Appeals said. “This is not such a case.”
Briefing in the appeal shows Ford arguing that Bratton’s sanctions order is damaging the legal career of lead counsel D. Alan Thomas of Huie Fernambucq & Stewart in Birmingham, Alabama. The automaker argued that Bratton’s order’s “impact is already being felt far beyond Ford and this litigation.”
Ford said the Hill case came up when Thomas applied for pro hac vice admission to represent Mitsubishi Motors Corp. in Iowa state court.
“The application asked whether Mr. Thomas personally had been ‘sanctioned by any court in a written order in the last five years for disobedience to the court’s rules or orders.’ Considering that the trial court expressly reserved judgment as to whether Mr. Thomas himself would be sanctioned,” Ford said, “Mr. Thomas conferred with his personal counsel, Mr. Patrick O’Connor, upon whose advice Mr. Thomas thereafter answered the application question ‘No.’ The Iowa court granted Mr. Thomas pro hac vice status, and the Iowa plaintiffs immediately moved for reconsideration, citing the Sanctions Order. Upon reconsideration, the Iowa trial court read the Sanctions Order as imposing sanctions personally on Mr. Thomas.”
The Hills’ lead counsel is Jim Butler of Butler Wooten & Peak of Columbus, Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. The Butler team took on the Iowa argument in a reply brief.
“Obviously the mere fact an Iowa trial judge wrongly concluded that Thomas was ‘sanctioned’ by the trial court’s July 19, 2018 Order (he clearly was not) cannot convert that Order into a ‘contempt’ order nor confer jurisdiction on this Court when none exist,” the Hills said in in the reply brief.
The reply also addressed Ford’s contention that the sanctions amounted to a contempt order and thus should be directly appealed.
But the court disagreed. The Iowa chapter of the story did not sway the Georgia intermediate appellate court. “The grant of a motion for mistrial leaves the case pending in the trial court,” the order said.
A spokeswoman for Ford said Thursday, “We do not have any additional information to share regarding this pending litigation.”
“Kim and Adam Hill look forward to finally getting to a verdict in their case for their parents—someday,” Butler said Wednesday. “Ford deliberately provoked a mistrial and then manufactured an eight month delay of the retrial—by filing a clearly illegitimate notice of appeal.”
The case at the Court of Appeals is Ford v. Hill, No. A19A1055.