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Supreme Court rejects Ford's appeal in rollover case

A San Diego woman won $83 million after her Explorer rolled over and its roof partially collapsed. The accident paralyzed her.

December 01, 2009|By David G. Savage

Reporting from Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a record $83-million judgment in favor of a San Diego County woman who was paralyzed when her Ford Explorer rolled over and its roof partially collapsed.

The justices rejected an appeal from lawyers for Ford Motor Co., who argued that the punitive damages were unfair and unconstitutional because the design of the sport utility vehicle met all the government and industry safety standards.

The jury had been told, however, that Ford could have strengthened the roof and possibly avoided such a catastrophic accident had it spent an extra $20 per vehicle.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had joined Ford in appealing the case. They urged the justices to take a more skeptical look at the notion of juries imposing punishment on manufacturers. But without comment, the court refused to hear the appeal.

In January 2002, Benetta Buell-Wilson, a 46-year-old mother of two, was driving on Interstate 8 east of San Diego when she swerved to avoid a metal object that fell from a vehicle in front of her. Her Ford Explorer rolled four times. She sustained spinal damage.

She and her husband sued Ford, and her lawyers argued that the Explorer was dangerously prone to rollovers and its roof was defectively weak.

In 2004, a jury in San Diego handed down a verdict of $369 million in her favor, one of the largest to date against a manufacturer. About one-third of the award was to compensate her for her losses, and two-thirds was to punish Ford for its "conscious disregard" of the safety of its customers.

Both the trial judge and a California appellate court reduced the verdict. In 2006, the state appeals court set the verdict as $27.6 million in compensatory damages and $55 million in punitive damages.

In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ford's lawyers challenged only the punitive damages.

david.savage@latimes.com

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