Vermont's highest court has upheld a $1.25 million jury verdict in a suit alleging that the steering system in a 1978 Ford Bronco was defective.
The state Supreme Court unanimously rejected arguments by Ford Motor Co. that there was not enough evidence to support the defect claim and that the jury should have been told that the injured plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt.
James Ulm was a front-seat passenger in the Bronco when the driver lost control of the steering as they approached a curve at 20 to 25 mph. The vehicle went off the road, climbed an embankment, hit a tree and rolled over onto its passenger side, according to Vermont Supreme Court.
Ulm's lawyer, Michael Hanley of White River Junction, acknowledged that his client had not been wearing a seat belt at the time of the 1990 single-vehicle crash. Ulm broke his back, and the spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.
He sued Ford in Windham County Superior Court, alleging that a design defect caused the steering gear sector shaft to break prior to the accident, causing the loss of control that led to the accident. Ford denied any defect.
During the two-week trial, Ulm offered evidence that Ford's rush to design a four-wheel-drive competitor to the Chevrolet Blazer led to the company's failure to test the steering system in the Bronco properly. One result, according to the testimony, was that the steering gear sector shafts occasionally fractured, disconnecting the steering wheel from the front wheels of the vehicle.
The Vermont Supreme Court said Ford had acknowledged the problem, but its engineers concluded that sector shafts could fracture only by 'extraordinary abuse,' not from 'normal usage.' Ford also attacked Ulm's expert testimony as speculative.
In its decision, the state Supreme Court found no basis for overturning the verdict. On a second issue, the court said Ford was properly barred from offering evidence that Ulm did not wear the available seat belt. Vermont law excludes such evidence in civil suits, it said.
In addition, Ford unsuccessfully argued that the jury should not have been allowed to hear evidence about similar incidents. That evidence included reports summarizing the results of Ford engineering investigations into complaints of accidents alleging loss of steering control, it said.
Ford spokeswoman Susan Kru-sel called the decision disappointing but said the company will not appeal further.