A divided Texas Supreme Court tossed out a $30 million product-liability judgment against Ford Motor Co. because the plaintiff sued in the wrong county.
The court ordered a new trial in a suit filed on behalf of Willie Searcy, who was left a quadriplegic after his spinal cord was severed when his stepfather's 1988 Ford Ranger crashed into a Mercury Cougar on an interstate highway in Dallas County, Texas.
The crashworthiness suit alleged that the tension eliminator in the seat-belt system was defectively designed. There was evidence that Searcy, then 14, had leaned forward to pick up some trash from the floor before the collision, and that 6 to 8 inches of slack were introduced into his shoulder harness and remained after he settled back into the seat.
Ford denied the seat-belt system was defective.
A Rusk County jury in Hen-derson awarded $30 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages against Ford, but found no liability for Doug Stanley Ford of Dallas, which sold the truck.
The driver of the other car in the crash was not sued.
The Texas Court of Appeals upheld the $30 million verdict for compensatory damages but ordered a new trial on punitive damages.
But the Texas Supreme Court said a new trial on compensatory and punitive damages is necessary because the case should have been filed in Dallas County, Texas, where the crash occurred, where Ford's regional headquarters are located, where Searcy and his family lived, and where the dealership is located.
The presence of an authorized Ford dealer in Rusk County, Texas, was insufficient to justify suing there because that dealership had no connection with the stepfather's pickup or the crash, the court said.
The plaintiff's lawyer, Thomas Randall Sandifer of Dallas, has asked the Texas Supreme Court for a new hearing.
Sandifer said the principal reason Rusk County was chosen was that 'you could get the case tried a whole lot faster there than in Dallas.' If the Texas Supreme Court does not reverse itself, it could take up to two years before a new trial begins in Dallas against Ford and Doug Stanley Ford, he said.
He also said Texas law in effect when the case began allowed the suit to be tried in Rusk County, but that the Texas legislature later changed that law.
Ford's appeals lawyer, Claudia Wilson Frost of Houston, said the decision clarifies an important issue on whether a dealership that is not part of a lawsuit is considered the manufacturer's agent for purposes of deciding where the factory can be sued.
On another issue, the Texas Supreme Court said Searcy cannot show the jury at the new trial either of two videotaped sled tests Ford had conducted. Frost characterized the videos as 'inflammatory,' and Ford successfully contended on appeal that they were highly prejudicial.
The court said the seat-belt assemblies on a 1966 Thunderbird and a 1980 Ranger depicted in the videos were substantially different from that of the 1988 Ranger involved in Searcy's injuries.