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Virginia jury agrees Ford’s Escort airbag not defective
FAIRFAX, VA - After a three-week trial, a unanimous state court jury agreed on February 14, 2006, that Ford’s 1995 Escort passenger airbag was not defective, that Ford and the local Ford dealership had not failed in any duty to warn, and that Ford and the dealership were not liable to Berta Benitez for eye injuries that she claimed left her blind in one eye. Plaintiff Benitez had asked the jury to award her $21 million plus punitive damages in her court filings.
Benitez had claimed the airbag deployed too fast and should have had an internal tether strap. Ford maintained the Escort passenger airbag’s deployment speed was in line with or below every other airbag on the market in 1995 and that the airbag was designed not to need a tether.
The underlying crash happened on September 14, 1999. Benitez was the right front seat passenger in the Escort as she and three housekeeping co-workers were on their way to a job. In morning rush-hour traffic, a Plymouth Voyager minivan pulled out in front of the Escort as it was going roughly 30 mph. The Escort slammed into the Voyager, injuring all of the passengers in the Escort and shaking up the Voyager’s passengers. Both cars were totaled. Benitez claimed she was immediately blinded in her left eye and later developed a traumatic cataract in her right eye from the airbag deployment.
At trial, Ford proved that the airbag design was state of the art, that it complied with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and industry practices, that its deployment design was reasonably safe, and that it provided adequate warnings in compliance with standards and industry practice. Ford also demonstrated that Benitez’s eye injuries could have come from any number of other causes, such as her arms or hands coming between the airbag and her face, which her own medical providers acknowledged could have caused her injuries.
The all-male seven-person jury deliberated for almost nine hours over two days before rendering their unanimous defense verdict. The defense verdict came after roughly four and one-half years of litigation.
Berta Benitez v. Ford Motor Company and Koons Ford, Inc.
Case No. 222545
Judge Jonathan C. Thacher
Circuit Court for Fairfax County, Virginia
Attorneys for Defense:
Sandra G. Ezell and Robert L. Wise of the Richmond office of Bowman and Brooke LLP.
Attorneys for Plaintiff:
David Bernhard, Bernhard and Gardner, Arlington, Virginia and Taras Rudnitsky, The Rudnitsky Law Firm, Longwood, Florida.
Experts testifying for Defense:
Russel Brantman, Ph.D. – Airbag Design, Testing and Performance Expert - Tampa, Florida
Experts testifying for Plaintiff:
D. Theodore Zinke – Airbag Design Expert – Santa Barbara, California
David Wagner, M.D. – Ophthalmology - Rockville, Maryland
J. Alberto Martinez, M.D. – Ophthalmology - Bethesda, Maryland