A federal judge in Norfolk, Va., has let stand a verdict in favor of Ford Motor Co. in a suit alleging the defective design of a 1991 Ranger 4x2 pickup involved in a rollover.
U.S. District Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. let Ford offer evidence of driver Sharin Brown's failure to use a seat belt to disprove her product liability and breach of warranty claims.
As a result, Morgan denied Brown's request for a new trial after a jury rejected her suit.
Paul Hultin, a Denver lawyer representing Ford in the case, called the ruling 'an important development in the law for Ford Motor Co. and the industry' because it will allow defendants to introduce 'relevant facts where nonuse is an issue' in product liability suits in Virginia.
According to Ford's evidence, Brown was driving too fast along a curve on a narrow country road when the Ranger slid sideways on gravel along the shoulder, causing her to lose control and roll over. She was not buckled up at the time.
Her son, who was riding in the passenger seat, was wearing his seat belt and suffered a minor injury. He was not part of the suit.
However, Brown's lawyer, Martin McGetrick of Charlottesville, said his client had been driving 'at or less than the speed limit.'
The suit alleged stability and handling design defects and sought compensatory and punitive damages.
After the verdict in Ford's favor, Brown asked Morgan to allow a new trial.
Morgan refused. Virginia law does not allow a defendant to offer evidence of a plaintiff's nonuse of an available seat belt to prove contributory negligence or to prove failure to mitigate or minimize potential damages, he said.
But that is not why Ford offered such evidence in this case, Morgan said. As he interpreted Virginia law, juries can consider nonuse in deciding whether a manufacturer negligently designed a vehicle, whether the vehicle was reasonably safe when used for its intended purpose and whether the plaintiff misused the vehicle.
'Here, Ford used evidence of the plaintiff's nonuse of her seat belt to demonstrate that its product, the Ranger, was not negligently designed and was fit for its intended purpose,' he said.
McGetrick declined to discuss whether Brown plans to appeal further.