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Directed Verdict for Ford in Seven Week Fuel System Crashworthiness Trial

New Jersey
Apr 23, 2007

Cannon v. Ford


Directed Verdict for Ford in Seven Week Fuel System Crashworthiness Trial

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ -  After seven weeks of trial, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Bryan D. Garruto directed a verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company.  RICHARD DOUGLAS CANNON vs. E & D AUTO REPAIR TOWING a/k/a E & D REPAIR, GERARD M. TABER, AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION, INC., NEW JERSEY AUTOMOBILE CLUB, AAA CENTRAL-WEST JERSEY, AAA MID-ATLANTIC, INC., FORD MOTOR COMPANY, MENTOR ENGINEERING, INC. d/b/a MENTOR CAMPANA SYSTEMS, INC. d/b/a CAMPANA and AXIS; AAA CENTRAL-WEST JERSEY (Defendant/Third Party Plaintiff) v. HARLEYSVILLE INSURANCE CMPANY and FORD MOTOR COMPANY (Third Party Defendants), Superior Court of New Jersey, Middlesex County, Case No. MID-L-677-02.

On September 6, 2001, plaintiff Richard “Doug” Cannon’s restored 1984 Mustang hatchback stalled in the center southbound lane of Route 1 near the top of an overpass in Avenel, New Jersey.  Though the stationary Mustang was visible for over 1,900 feet, the driver of a 13,500 pound flat bed tow truck rear ended the Mustang at about 57 mph.  The impact crushed the Mustang’s fuel tank between the tow truck’s stiff front end and two rigid aftermarket steel pipes Mr. Cannon had welded to the undercarriage of the Mustang to stiffen the Mustang’s frame.

Doug Cannon, then a 21-year-old Rutgers University student, was ejected from the Mustang and into a trail of burning gasoline.  He sustained third degree burns from his waist up, comprising 59% of his full body surface area.  The accident left Mr. Cannon with extensive facial disfigurement, partial blindness, the complete loss of use of his left hand, and other serious injuries for which he still receives extensive treatment.

Plaintiff sued the 23-year-old driver of the tow truck, Gerard Taber; the tow truck company, E & D Towing; AAA Mid Atlantic (AAAMA) who contracted with E & D Towing to provide emergency road service to AAA members; and the American Automobile Association, Inc., (AAA) the national parent organization.  At the time of the crash, the E & D tow truck was responding to a call from a AAA member with a flat tire.

Plaintiff also sued two Canadian companies, Mentor, Inc. and Campana Systems, Inc. who manufactured and supplied a mobile data terminal (“MDT”) used for digital dispatching in the E & D tow truck.  The tow truck driver testified that he did not see the stationary Mustang because he was distracted by a call that had come into the MDT and was reading the MDT’s screen shortly before the crash.  Plaintiff claimed that the AAA defendants negligently adopted practices requiring tow operators to use the MDT while driving and to respond to road service calls in 30 minutes or less.  According to the investigating officer, Mr. Taber was traveling perhaps as fast a 61 mph in a 50 mph zone when he locked up his brakes just 10 feet before hitting the Mustang. 

Ford was brought into the case when AAAMA asserted a claim against Ford alleging that the 1984 Mustang’s aft of axle fuel tank was uncrashworthy in rear impact accidents.  The other defendants cross-claimed against each other, and the plaintiff asserted a claim against Ford.  By the commencement of trial, however, the plaintiff had decided not to present evidence adverse to Ford.

AAAMA called Hawthorne, New Jersey professional engineer Donald R. Phillips on the issues of fuel system design and crashworthiness.  After a three hour voir dire examination on his qualifications followed by a separate evidentiary hearing on the bases for his opinions, the Court precluded Mr. Phillips’ testimony.

“While Mr. Phillips has a degree in mechanical engineering from a notable university, he has no additional education beyond that in the field of engineering at a formal level.  He has admitted he is not an automotive engineer.  And he has no experience working for an automobile manufacturer.  And no direct experience in a production car fuel system.  His experience on the job is limited to his modification of the fuel system in some racing vehicles.

As far as his opinions are concerned, they lack a firm foundation for him to express those opinions. . . .  He has taken what is an analysis used for a very simplistic piece of machinery, such as a lawnmower or a punch [press] without a guard, and attempted to utilize it in this very complex area without doing the necessary work in order to support his opinion . . . .”

After the New Jersey Court of Appeals rejected an emergency petition by AAAMA to stay the trial for an interlocutory appeal, the trial court directed a verdict on all of the claims and cross-claims against Ford.

Plaintiff’s trial witnesses included human factors expert Thomas Dingus from Blacksburg, Virginia.  In addition to Donald Phillips, AAAMA called human factors expert Deborah Boehm-Davis from Great Falls, Virginia, and accident reconstructionist Steven M. Schorr from Abington, Pennsylvania.  Ford engineer Jack Ridenour also testified as did numerous AAA national and AAAMA employees.  As of May 24, the trial was proceeding against the other defendants with an anticipated completion date of the week of June 4, 2007.

Ford Motor Company was represented by Paul G. Cereghini of Bowman and Brooke in Phoenix, Arizona, C. Paul Carver of Bowman and Brooke in Minneapolis, Minnesota and James S. Dobis of Dobis, Russell & Peterson in Livingston, New Jersey.

Plaintiff was represented by Alfred D. DiMiero of Mella and DiMiero in Summit, New Jersey.  E & D Towing and its driver were represented by Michael Marone and Peter A. Gaudioso of McElroy, Deutsch & Mulvaney, LLP in Morristown, New Jersey.  AAA, Inc. was represented by Michael Graham of Garrity, Graham, Favetta & Flinn, P.C. in Montclair, New Jersey and Jay Train of Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial in Atlanta, Georgia; AAAMA was represented by Judith A. Heim of the office of Heim & Lamastra in Warren, New Jersey and Thomas A. Kuzmick of Rawle & Henderson in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Mentor, Inc. was represented by Adam Levy of the Law Office of Mauro C. Casci in Leonardo, New Jersey and Campana Systems, Inc. was represented by Stacy Christmas of Worthington & Worthington, in Jamison, Pennsylvania.

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