By Andy Furillo
A Sacramento Superior Court jury today awarded three plaintiffs $73 million in damages in a negligence lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company over a church van crash seven years ago that killed two people and injured two more.
The awards included $50 million in punitive damages for what the jurors agreed was "despicable" conduct on the part of the automaker. The jury made its of "malice and oppression" over Ford's failure to warn its customers and dealers that it had a defective tire on its 15-passenger, E-350 Econonoline van that the plaintiffs charged was unsafe in its own right.
"A manufacturer cannot have information that deals with the very fabric of human life, of being alive or being dead, and issues of safety, and keep that information to themselves," said attorney Roger A. Dreyer, who represented the family of a man who was killed in the April 9, 2004, crash of the van that was coming home from a statewide tour by a Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church musical youth group. "They shrunk down the number of people who got this information instead of what safety practices require, which is to expand it."
The van skidded off northbound Interstate 5 in Kern County after the tread separated on its rear right tire. Evidence at trial showed that Ford officials had been contacted by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and knew the product was defective but did not make an effort to contact its dealers or customers.
In a prepared statement, Ford said it was "disappointed in the decision in this case." It called the awards "unfair" because "this tragic event...could have been prevented with proper seat belt use by the vehicle occupants." Ford insisted that the E-350 van series, which has been the subject of numerous federal advisories, is safe.
Jurors did find that one of the two men killed in the rollover, Tony Mauro, who was 41, was not wearing a seat belt when he was killed. But the panel also found that it would not have mattered in a crash in which the van rolled over four times while traveling at 70 miles per hour.
Mauro's wife and two sons were awarded $17,525.979 in past and future economic and non-economic damages. The jury found that Ford was responsible for 59 percent of the fault and Goodyear the other 41 percent. Goodyear, which had already settled with the plaintiffs, was not a defendant in the case. The panel attached no responsibility to Mauro for his death.
Plaintiff Marlene Shirley was awarded a separate $5,242,670.09. She sustained severe abdominal injuries in the crash. She had her seat belt loosely fastened while she slept on a middle seat and Ford's lawyers said it was the reason for her injuries. The jury found she was 1 percent responsible for her injuries, Ford 58.5 percent and Goodyear 40.5.
A third plaintiff, Alexander Bessonov, who suffered head lacerations in the crash, was awarded $292,000.
Most of the jury's findings came on 10-2 and 9-3 votes.
Even with the jury's findings that Ford was only 59 percent responsible, the apportionment figure does not apply to the punitive damages the jury awarded. Judge David W. Abbott is expected to schedule hearings to determine how the $50 million will be awarded between the plaintiffs.
Survivors of the second man killed in the crash, driver William Brownell, 48, had previously settled their lawsuits.