SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A jury determined that Ford Motor Co. must pay $73 million in damages to a group of plaintiffs who sought damages from the auto giant after a 2004 crash left two people dead and two seriously injured. The verdict is one of the biggest wrongful death and personal injury verdicts in Sacramento history. The case involved the crash of a 15-passenger Econoline van that had been equipped with defective Goodyear tires, which the plaintiffs alleged should have been recalled by Ford.
On April 9, 2004, members of Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in Fair Oaks, Calif., were headed home from a statewide musical tour. The Ford van they were traveling in had just entered Interstate 5 near Bakersfield when the treads of the defective tire separated, causing the vehicle to shake.
The driver, William Brownell, 48, steered the van into the center median, but the vehicle flipped and rolled four times, killing him and passenger Tony Mauro, 41. Passenger Marlene Shirley received severe abdominal injuries, the result of her seat belt only loosely restraining her in the rollover. Passenger Alexander Bessonov received multiple lacerations.
According to the 2006 lawsuit, Goodyear notified Ford in 2002 that the tires were subject to a recall and replacement program, yet the automaker failed to pass that information along to drivers of the affected vehicles, fearing, plaintiffs alleged, more bad press in the wake of its massive $2-billion Firestone-Explorer recall. A lawyer for the plaintiffs called Ford’s decision to sit on the recall information “despicable.”
According to the Sacramento Bee, Ford attempted to settle the case while the jury was deliberating, but plaintiffs’ lawyers refused, telling the automaker it was too late.
One lawyer representing the plaintiffs told the Sacramento Bee that the jury’s verdict will help keep giant corporations like Ford accountable for their decisions.
“If we would have talked resolution with Ford, they would have required it to be confidential, such that the public would never know what this jury determined,” the lawyer told the Sacrament Bee.
Jury foreman Michael Martin, 31, raised his fist when returning the last verdict: $50 million in punitive damages against Ford for acting out of “malice or oppression” in withholding information about the defective tires. The jury also found that the Econoline’s design failed “to perform safely … as expected.”
Ford said it plans to appeal the verdict, which it called “unfair.” The auto giant blamed the deaths of Mr. Brownell and Mr. Mauro on their failure to wear their seat belts. Based on crash evidence, however, the jury determined that seat belts would not have prevented the fatalities.
The Sacramento Bee