WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday set aside a record $290 million punitive damages award against Ford Motor Co. over a deadly 1993 California rollover accident with a Ford Bronco.
Ford had called this the largest personal injury award that had been affirmed on appeal in U.S. history.
The justices sent the case back to a California court for further consideration in view of their ruling last month in a different case that punitive damages must be reasonable and proportionate to the harm suffered.
The Ford case involved the crash of a 1978 Bronco near Ceres, California. Three members of the Romo family were killed and three others were injured when the vehicle overturned several times, causing the roof to cave in.
The accident occurred after the Bronco's driver, Juan Romo, swerved when he was cut off by another vehicle.
The surviving plaintiffs sued Ford, claiming the roof had been improperly designed because it did not have steel reinforcement. The jury awarded them $4.6 million in compensatory damages and $290 million in punitive damages.
A trial judge ordered a new trial because two jurors had shown bias. But a California appeals court reinstated the entire $290 million, and the California Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, declined to review the decision.
Ford's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the verdict nearly equaled its total profits on sales of the 1978 Bronco nationwide. They called the award "a grossly excessive, arbitrary" and unconstitutional punishment.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said Ford's appeal should be rejected. They said the appeals court properly concluded that Ford's conduct had been "grossly reprehensible."
They said it has been 10 years since the accident.
"This case is unique not because it represents an aberration or injustice to Ford or a threat to American manufacturers, but because it has taken this extraordinary case to finally punish Ford for keeping a known hazard hidden for so long," they said.
Ford also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court a separate punitive damages award of $15 million in a Kentucky case brought on behalf of a man killed in 1993 when his Ford pickup truck slipped into reverse from park and he was crushed.
The high court set aside a ruling upholding that award, and sent the case back for further consideration in view of its decision last month.