A Texas appeals panel in Beaumont has let stand a $2.4 million product liability verdict against Ford Motor Co. stemming from an accident allegedly caused by a defective belt system.
The three-judge Texas Court of Appeals panel rejected Ford's arguments that driver Steve Bruce failed to produce enough evidence to support the defect claim. It also held that the jury's damage award wasn't excessive.
Ford criticized the decision and has not decided whether to seek Texas Supreme Court review, company spokeswoman Susan Krusel said.
According to the appeals court, the owner of the 1994 F-350 began experiencing trouble with the serpentine belt soon after purchasing the pickup. The rubber belt, which drives the engine's accessories, including the power steering pump, the alternator and the air conditioner, was replaced four times.
In August 1994, Bruce was driving the truck with the owner and another friend as passengers.
He testified that as he approached a curve and shifted gears, the steering wheel refused to turn and the brakes failed to engage. The truck crashed into a bridge, seriously injuring him.
After the accident, an investigator found pieces of belt along the roadway from 25 to 250 feet back from where the truck hit the bridge. Bruce sued Ford for defective design. His lawyer, Al Ellis of Dallas, said, 'That model had a history of problems with the serpentine belt.'
Ellis also said Ford had issued technical bulletins, adding, 'Ford recognized it had this problem.'
Ford denied liability and offered expert testimony at trial that the belt had come off at the point of collision, not earlier. In addition, Krusel said, police found skid marks at the scene, contradicting Bruce's claim the brakes didn't work, and said Bruce and his passengers would have heard the belt break if it occurred before the crash as they contended.
The jury awarded Bruce $2,183,740 and awarded his wife $221,260 for loss of consortium.
The appeals court unanimously affirmed the verdict.
'The evidence is legally sufficient because the jury could reasonably have determined that the belt system on the Ford truck was defective, that the belt had come off and interfered with Bruce's ability to steer and brake the vehicle on a curve, causing him to run the truck into a guardrail and concrete bridge, resulting in his injuries,' appeals Judge Ronald Walker said.
The appeals court also said there was adequate proof of Bruce's damages, including lost earning capacity, physical pain and impairment, and past and future mental anguish.
Krusel said, 'There's absolutely no clear evidence to prove their defect theory and to dispute our accident reconstruction testimony.'
She also said the court should have found Bruce negligent for not wearing his seat belt.