DETROIT -- The $369 million in damages slapped on Ford Motor Co. in an Explorer rollover case last week could expose it to more legal setbacks and highlight the automaker's inability to put one of the worst crises in its 100-year history behind it, experts said.
The $369 million in damages awarded by a California jury are among the largest ever in a single lawsuit against Ford and mark its first loss after 11 victories in rollover cases focusing on the safety of America's best-selling SUV.
"Certainly Ford would become more aggressive in settling cases that are set for trial," said trial lawyer Roger Braugh, who is handling seven Explorer rollover cases.
The end of Ford's winning streak in the rollover-related trials could also ratchet up the value of future out-of-court settlements.
"It puts Ford in a position where they are going to have a difficult time settling cases, at least for a smaller dollar amount," said Sean Kane, a partner with Strategic Safety, a consumer safety research group.
Ford on Thursday was ordered to pay $246 million in punitive damages to Benetta Buell-Wilson who was left paralyzed from the waist down when her Explorer rolled over in an accident in January of 2002. She was previously awarded $122.6 million in compensatory damages after a six-week trial.
The automaker has not changed its legal strategy after Thursday's verdict, however, said spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes.
"This will not affect our determination to aggressively defend an already safe product," she said.
Vokes said Ford would appeal the California decision. But in setting a precedent, at least for now, it could compound Ford's problems in dealing with several hundred pending Explorer rollover cases. Braugh said the number of cases could be as high as 1,000.
Additionally, Ford is facing a class-action lawsuit over faulty Firestone tires installed mostly as original equipment on Explorers. Plaintiffs have amended the complaint to allege vehicle stability claims in addition to tire defects.
More than 270 highway deaths were reported from the separation of the vehicle's tire treads. In its financial reports, Ford does not estimate how much all these lawsuits would specifically cost the company, however.
In 2001, in one of the biggest recalls in U.S. history, former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser announced that the automaker was spending $3 billion to replace all 13 million Firestone tires on Explorers at the time.
Since the Firestone tire debacle, Ford has made some design changes to the Explorer, with later models wider at the base and featuring a lower center of gravity.
Last week's decision in California drew an angry reaction from rival automaker General Motors, which has faced its own problems over multimillion-dollar product safety lawsuits.
"You find that where that money goes ... on average less than 50 percent to victims," GM CEO Executive Rick Wagoner said.