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Justices reject Ford's appeal of San Diego woman's $83-million award

The woman was paralyzed in 2002 when her Ford Explorer rolled over and its roof gave way. Ford argued that punitive damages were unconstitutional because the vehicle design met safety standards.

November 30, 2009|By David G. Savage

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court let stand today an $83-million verdict 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, who argued that the punitive damages were unfair and unconstitutional because the design of the Explorer met all the government and industry safety standards.

The jury was 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 van in front of her. Her Ford Explorer rolled over four times, and she was badly injured and trapped inside.

She and her husband sued Ford, and her lawyers argued 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 $364 million in her favor, one of the largest verdicts to date against a manufacturer. About one-third of this amount was intended to compensate her for her losses, while two-thirds was intended to punish Ford for its "conscious disregard" of the safety of its customers.

Both the trial judge and a California appeals court scaled back the verdict. In 2006, the state appeals court rejected Ford's appeals and set the verdict as $27.6 million in compensatory damages and $55 million in punitive damages.

Ford's lawyers called this "the largest punitive damages award affirmed on appeal in California history."

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Ford's lawyers challenged only the punitive damages. But the justices turned away the appeal, letting stand in the final decision from California appeals court.

david.savage@latimes.com

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