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Award Against Ford Cut Again

A court reduces the amount to be given to a woman left paralyzed after a rollover accident to $82.6 million.

July 20, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

A San Diego appeals court Wednesday slashed a jury award levied against Ford Motor Co. for a woman left paralyzed after a Ford Explorer rollover accident.

But the court, which termed the original damage award of $368.6 million excessive, denied Ford's request for a new trial.

The jury verdict two years ago produced the first-ever damage award against Ford involving a rollover from an Explorer and the second-highest award in U.S. history in an automobile products liability claim, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Benetta Buell-Wilson was injured when she lost control of her 1997 Explorer in January 2002 as she swerved to avoid a metal object that fell off a motor home traveling in front of her. Her vehicle ran off the road and rolled over 4 1/2 times.

The crash severed her spine and has left the now 51-year-old mother of two and former black belt in karate "in severe and constant pain," according to the appeals court's ruling.

In June 2004 a San Diego jury found that her Explorer was defective because of its instability and weak roof, and awarded $122.6 million in compensatory damages to Buell-Wilson and her husband and $246 million in punitive damages.

The trial judge later reduced the judgment to $150 million, but Ford asked the appeals court to cut it further or order a new trial.

In a 66-page opinion, the California Court of Appeal for the 4th Appellate District gave each side something.

The justices denied Ford's motion for a new trial but cut the already-reduced jury award virtually in half to $82.6 million, saying that the amount awarded to Buell-Wilson and her husband for pain and suffering and for punitive damages was excessive by state and federal legal standards.

Ford's lawyer, Theodore Boutrous Jr., said he was pleased by the move, saying that "the court correctly found that the jury's verdicts were tainted by passion, prejudice and emotion."

But Boutrous said he believed that the appeals court made several errors, for example, in excluding what he called crucial evidence of the vehicle's actual safety record.

"We think a whole new trial is necessary," Boutrous said. He said Ford would seek further review from the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jerome Falk, the San Francisco lawyer who represented Buell-Wilson and her husband, said, "All in all I'm very pleased. This is an awful lot of money" that will change his clients' lives "for the better."

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