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Lawyer's Words Might Cost Ford

Other plaintiffs vow to use court transcripts that show he said the company knowingly put out a 'defective product.'

June 16, 2004|From Bloomberg News

Ford Motor Co. may face more losses in Explorer rollover suits because of statements its defense lawyer made to jurors during a trial in San Diego.

Ford attorney Anthony Sonnett told jurors June 2 that company engineers were "sorry that they let the rest of the company down" and that Ford "knowingly put a defective product on the market" in selling the Explorer, according to the official court transcript. After hearing Sonnett, jurors awarded punitive damages of $246 million, for a total judgment of $368.6 million, the first Ford loss in 14 rollover trials.

Attorneys for other accident victims who died or were injured in the rollovers of the sport utility vehicle were distributing the transcript and said they would use Sonnett's words against Ford as an admission of fault. Explorer customers have an estimated 1,100 rollover suits pending against Ford, said Tab Turner, a lawyer who represents some of them.

"This is going to create a lot of problems for Ford," said Turner, a North Little Rock, Ark., lawyer. "You can't tell the jury in one trial, 'We agree with you and are very sorry,' and then say in another trial, 'It's not a defect.' "

Sonnett said the court reporter partly misquoted him. He plans to ask the court reporter to change the transcript of the "defective product" remark. He does not dispute any other transcribed statement.

Ford's attorneys said the statements won't help customers in lawsuits against the company. "If they're suggesting this is the smoking gun, they're wrong," Ford attorney Ted Boutrous said. "It's totally out of context."

During the closing argument, Sonnett told the jury, according to a court transcript: "We are sorry that we let you down. The engineers are sorry that they let the rest of the company down."

"When he says the engineers are sorry, it means that the engineers screwed up," Turner said.

Attorneys for accident victims could use this statement to cross-examine Ford experts and engineers, Turner said.

"I'd blow it up to the size of a wall," Turner said. "Then I'd say, 'This is a statement that one of your lawyers made. Are you one of the engineers who's apologizing?' You can crucify people with what this guy did."

Sonnett was simply stating that Ford and its engineers feel bad when people are injured in accidents, Boutrous said.

Sonnett also told jurors, according to the transcript: "It's impossible not to be angry at Ford, Ford Motor Co., for what decisions that in marketing and selling this Ford Explorer it knowingly put a defective product out on the market and caused the family tragedy that you see before you now."

Sonnett said the transcript on this passage is incorrect. Sonnett said he said, "for your decisions," rather than "for what decisions."

He meant it was the jury's decision that Ford was at fault and not that Ford made a decision to put a defective vehicle on the market, Sonnett said.

"You just don't say the court reporter's wrong," Turner said. "He'll have to file a motion to get it changed."

Boutrous, who was at the court session, said that Sonnett was misquoted and that no Ford attorney would say in court that the product was defective.

"There's no way that a lawyer for Ford, who knows Ford has won 13 cases in a row, would stand up and admit, 'Yes, you're right and we give up,' " Boutrous said.

The $368.6-million verdict in San Diego was awarded to Benetta Buell-Wilson, 49, who was injured in January 2002 when her 1997 Explorer flipped over as she tried to steer around a metal obstruction on a California highway. The jury found that the design of the Explorer was defective and that its roof strength was inadequate.

Ford shares rose 19 cents to $15.41 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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