An unsuccessful plaintiff in a Bronco II rollover case will ask the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to order a new trial in her wrongful death and injury case against Ford Motor Co.
The major issue on appeal will be the trial judge's refusal to allow as evidence a letter that allegedly shows the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reopened its investigation of Bronco II safety, according to plaintiff's attorney Edgar Heiskell III of Charleston.
'We're very confident the Su-preme Court will overturn the verdict and order a new trial,' he said.
Heiskell represents Debbie Sue Gamblin, who was injured and whose 3-year-old son died in a Bronco II accident in January 1991. The child was ejected from the rear seat through a window as the sport-utility began to roll over, hit an embankment and slid along a ditch.
Gamblin's product liability suit alleged that her 1989 vehicle was defective, a charge Ford disputes.
A Preston County Circuit Court jury deadlocked at the original trial in 1996. At the 10-day trial last month, the jury found in Ford's favor.
'The jury was put at a disadvantage when it heard only Ford's side of the NHTSA issue,' Heiskell said. He said the jury should have been allowed to see a September 1996 letter from NHTSA to Ford demanding test data, internal documents and other records the automaker withheld during the agency's original investigation of Bronco II rollover problems.
Heiskell said that without the letter as evidence, 'it was easy for the jury to infer that since the government had investigated and found no defect, who were they in Preston County to find otherwise.'
The trial judge denied Gamblin's motion to set aside the verdict.
Michael Bonasso of Charleston, a Ford trial lawyer in the case, said, 'We're confident the verdict will stand, and it should stand.'
He said the jury believed the testimony of Ford's witnesses, particularly a police officer who witnessed and investigated the accident and an accident reconstruction specialist.
'Our defense was that any vehicle would have rolled over under the circumstances,' Bonasso said. He referred to Gamblin's 'significant speed' on a curve, where the vehicle slid on a patch of black ice, did a near-180-degree turn, crossed the road, slid backward into a ditch and rolled against an embankment. He noted that the jury was not told that neither Gamblin nor her son wore a seat belt. He also said the trial judge correctly excluded the NHTSA letter as evidence. 'The matter was still up in the air, and the letter is subject to different and incorrect interpretations,' he said.
Gamblin's suit originally included the dealership that sold the Bronco II, Scott Ford-Mercury of Kingwood, W.Va., but the dealership was dismissed before the first trial.