A federal appeals court has refused to reinstate a $700,000 jury verdict in a design defect suit against Ford Motor Co., saying the award was tossed out justifiably because of juror misconduct.
The suit stemmed from the death of Rise Anderson in the 1992 crash of her 1991 Ford Probe in a rural area north of Kansas City, Mo. There were no eye witnesses. Anderson, who was alone in the car, died of her injuries two days after the single-vehicle crash.
Her family sued Ford, alleging that the restraint system was defective because it was not designed for short drivers such as the 5-foot-2-inch Anderson. The Ander-sons asserted that their daughter drove with the seat nearly fully forward and that faulty design caused the torso belt webbing to cross over soft abdominal tissues rather than over bony structures.
The Andersons' lowest demand was $3.5 million, according to Ford's lawyer in the case, Robert Adams of Kansas City.
At trial in federal court, Ford offered evidence that the restraint system was not defective and that Anderson misused her shoulder belt by placing it under her left arm.
The jury awarded $700,000 in compensatory damages.
However, the trial judge tossed out the verdict for two reasons: First, he found that one juror committed misconduct by visiting a Ford dealership to conduct a fit test of a 1991 Probe's restraint system, using his 4-foot-8-inch son in the process. During deliberations, he told at least four other jurors about the results of the experiment. Adams discovered the misconduct by interviewing jury members after the trial.
Second, the judge said one of the Andersons' experts gave unscientific and unreliable testimony about why the restraint system was allegedly defective.
The judge ordered a new trial, which Ford won. The Andersons then asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis to reinstate the original award.
The court refused. In a unanimous opinion by Judge Ronald Longstaff, it said the juror who had made the improper out-of-court experiment was biased in his consideration of the issues, thus prejudicing Ford. The juror knew the experiment conflicted with the trial judge's instructions and lied about it to the judge.
The court found it unnecessary to consider the issue of the expert witness' testimony.
The Andersons' lawyer, Robert Eye of Topeka, Kan., said his clients may ask the appeals court for a new hearing or could seek U.S. Supreme Court review. He said his clients were not responsible for the juror's misconduct and Ford had failed to show that the misconduct had a direct impact on the verdict.