Ford Motor Co. is not liable to a woman injured by a drunken diplomat who was driving a vehicle leased under a special program for foreign embassies, a federal judge has ruled.
Ford was not the legal owner of the vehicle for liability purposes, the Washington, D.C., judge ruled in a decision that will be appealed.
A lawyer for Ford in Washing-ton, D.C., Stephen Harburg, said the victim sued Ford because she was looking for 'deep pockets' from which to collect.
'The question is whether Ford is directly liable. The judge said Ford as the lessor bears no liability,' Harburg said.
The situation arose from a January 1997 high-speed crash in which Georgui Makharadze, a diplomat from the Republic of Georgia, killed a 16-year-old girl and injured several other people, including Patricia McQueen, in a chain collision. McQueen's car was struck with so much force that it launched into the air, landing upside down and leaving her hanging by a seat belt, according to attorneys.
Makharadze was driving a 1997 Ford Taurus LX that his embassy had leased under Ford's Executive Lease Car Program. At the time of the crash, Makharadze's blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, a fact that created a great deal of publicity and controversy. Makharadze's government waived diplomatic immunity, and he was sentenced on felony charges to a prison term of seven to 25 years. However, he was found entitled to diplomatic immunity from civil claims by the victims.
The embassy carried the $250,000/$500,000 minimum insurance required under Ford's lease. The insurer paid $139,000 to McQueen. Claiming damages of between $733,310 and $985,159, she sued Ford and Ford's insurer for the difference.
Judge Thomas Hogan dismissed the suit without trial, rejecting McQueen's argument that Ford is responsible as the owner of the Taurus under the District of Columbia's motor vehicle safety law. That law defines owners as those who hold the legal title of a vehicle.
However, Hogan said long-term lessees have 'virtual ownership' and, therefore, they rather than the lessors are liable.
Ford spokesman Jim Cain said, 'Georgia controlled the use of the vehicle, not Ford, so the diplomat was an agent of Georgia.'
McQueen's lawyer, Leslie Turner of Washington, said her client intends to appeal. 'The judge's definition of ownership runs contrary to decided law in the District of Columbia,' she said. 'It creates a whole new class of ownership.'