LANSING, Mich. - The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld verdicts in favor of Ford Motor Co. in two unrelated product liability suits, rejecting the plaintiffs' argument that juror misconduct entitles them to new trials.
The cases involved different types of vehicles, but both dealt with the issue of whether the losing side can use what jurors tell them after the trial to invalidate the verdict, according to an attorney for Ford, John E.S. Scott of Detroit.
In one case, the estates of three crash victims contended that the screw that held the filler pipe to the gas tank of a 1984 Mercury Marquis failed.
Four people died in the 1990 accident when the car, which was stopped in a construction zone on an interstate highway near Chicago, burst into flames after being rear-ended by a truck loaded with 40,000 pounds of peaches.
Ford settled the crashworthiness suit with the estate of one victim, and the truck owner settled with all the estates, according to the plaintiffs' lawyer, Richard Halpert of Kalamazoo.
The settlement terms were confidential.
The case then went to trial on the other estates' claims.
In a trial in Wayne County Circuit Court, Mich., Ford denied liability, and the jury found in its favor. Circuit Court Judge Claudia Morcom then ordered a new trial, saying one of the alternate jurors had expressed bias against the estates, their lawyer and their expert witnesses.
She also said there was insufficient evidence to support the defense verdict.
The appeals court unanimously disagreed and reinstated the verdict. The allegedly biased alternate juror did not take part in the deliberations, and there was no proof that her supposed misconduct affected the verdict, it said.
The three-judge appellate panel also said Ford offered substantial evidence to contest the estates' negligence claims, including expert engineering testimony concerning the S-2 coating used in manufacturing the car.
Halpert said a further appeal is an option for his clients.
In the second case, the estate of a 13-year-old front-seat passenger in a 1993 Ford Escort station wagon contended the passive restraint system had been designed negligently.
Steven Walker died in a 1993 crash when the shoulder belt restraint severed his trachea. The driver, his brother, accepted responsibility for the accident, but Walker's estate contended that the improper design had caused the boy's death.
Scott, the lawyer for Ford, said the driver 'wasn't paying much attention,' and Walker 'got the seat belt out of position.'
At trial before Wayne County Circuit Judge Patricia Hathaway, Ford offered evidence that the boy had not been wearing the belt properly.
The jury ruled that Ford was not negligent.
On appeal, the estate unsuccessfully argued that there had been juror misconduct, in part because the jurors had experimented with chairs and seat belts during the trial and deliberations.
The appeals court affirmed the verdict, saying, 'Jurors are entitled to consider their general knowledge and common experience during their deliberations.'
The court also said the trial judge properly dismissed a potential juror who kept falling asleep during jury selection and was replaced by a man who worked for a supplier to Ford, General Motors and Chrysler Corp.
A lawyer for the boy's estate did not return phone calls.