The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has unanimously upheld a $12 million jury verdict against Ford Motor Co. in a crashworthiness suit alleging that the roof of a 1990 Taurus was designed negligently.
The three-judge panel rejected defense arguments that there was insufficient evidence of negligence and strict product liability and that the award was excessive.
The suit was filed on behalf of 15-year-old Daniel Payne, who was a front-seat passenger in the car when a 16-year-old driver drove it recklessly on a narrow rural road near Madison, Wis., in 1994. Payne, the driver and a rear-seat passenger were wearing seat belts and were on their way to a movie when they encountered gravel across the road.
The car flipped halfway over, and the roof above Payne's head collapsed on impact with the ground, according to the court.
The crash left him paralyzed from the chest down. Neither the driver nor the other passenger was injured.
At trial before Judge Mark Frankel, a Dane County Superior Court jury awarded $12 million to Payne, with $8.3 million of that amount for pain, suffering and disability and the balance to cover medical expenses and other economic losses. It also awarded $75,000 to his parents.
The appeals court affirmed the verdict.
First, it held that Payne was not required by Wisconsin's strict liability law to prove that a reasonable alternative design would have prevented his injuries.
'A product may be defective and unreasonably dangerous even though there are no alternative, safer designs available,' the court said. 'The question is not whether any other manufacturer has produced a safer design, but whether the specific product in question is defective and unreasonably dangerous.'
Even if alternative design evidence were required to prove strict liability, there was still ample proof Ford acted negligently, it said.
The court rebuffed Ford's argument that the jury should have been told to allocate blame among the manufacturer, the reckless driver and Payne himself. Any negligence by Payne or the driver related only to the initial accident, it said, and 'there was no evidence that either did anything to enhance the injury caused by the roof collapse.'
Payne's lawyer, Donald Slavik of Milwaukee, said: 'It was a pure crashworthiness case. The jury found it 100 percent Ford's fault.'
The appeals court also held that the $8.3 million in damages for pain, suffering and disability, 'although high,' was not excessive 'given the devastating results of his injury.' Ford did not challenge the rest of the damage award.
Ford attorney Wayne Struble of Minnesota said the company has the option of petition to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the case, but that court 'has the discretion to hear or not hear' a further appeal.