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Court Upholds Jury Verdict for Ford in Rollover Case -- No Defect in Roof
SAN JOSE, CA - On May 21, 2002, the Yolo County Superior Court in Woodland, California, denied a motion for new trial made by plaintiff and affirmed a jury's defense verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company rendered on March 26, 2002, following a seven-week trial. The jury rejected plaintiff's claim that there was a defect in the roof of her 1989 Ford Escort. Plaintiff Sara Granda, 17 years old at the time of the accident in July, 1997, lost control of the Escort on a rural highway, causing the car to roll over four times.
Plaintiff claimed her C2 spinal cord injury was the result of roof crush that she claimed should have been prevented by designing a stronger roof. Ford countered that the roof exceeded the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards' requirements for roof strength and that plaintiff's injury was caused by the severity of the accident, not the design of the roof. Consistent with the approach being taken by plaintiffs in rollover cases around the country, plaintiff's experts attacked the Federal roof strength standard, arguing that the standard is inadequate, that every automobile designed to meet the standard (essentially every car on the road) is defective, and that the auto industry has conspired to keep the government from making the standard more stringent. In addition to finding no defect in the roof, the jury also rejected plaintiff's claim that incomplete bonding of the windshield contributed to cause plaintiff's injury and plaintiff's claim that there was a defect in the suspension of the 1989 Escort that caused the rollover.
On July 24, 1997, 17-year-old plaintiff Sara Granda was driving her 1989 Ford Escort southbound on Hwy. 102, a straight, flat rural two-lane asphalt highway between Woodland and Davis, California. Sara's brother David was in the front passenger seat. Both Sara and David were wearing seat belts. Sara became distracted by papers blowing around inside the car, and the car started to drift toward the right side of the road. David yelled at Sara, and she jerked the wheel back to the left. The car began to skid and rotate counterclockwise, and the right rear wheel slid off the pavement into the soft dirt and then came back onto the pavement. The car rolled over four times, finally coming to rest on its wheels. Sara Granda sustained a C2 spinal cord injury and is now a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic requiring 24-hour care. Her medical expenses at the time of trial were $4 million, and her attorney told the jury in closing argument that they should award a minimum of $50 million in damages.
Plaintiff claimed that the roof of the 1989 Escort was defective in design because it was not strong enough to provide adequate occupant protection in rollover accidents. While experts for both sides agreed that plaintiff's injury happened when her head struck the pavement through the driver's side window, plaintiff claimed that roof crush caused the injury because the roof was crushed sideways, exposing plaintiff's head to the pavement. Related to the roof defect claim was a claim that improper installation of the windshield contributed to the inadequate strength of the roof.
Plaintiff hired Steven Forrest of Goleta, California, to testify that the roof was defective because it was not strong enough. Although the roof as designed did pass the roof strength standard of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 216, Forrest testified that in his opinion FMVSS 216 is inadequate and all roofs designed to that standard are defective and too often cause serious neck injuries when they crush in rollover accidents. Forrest argued that the automotive industry has conspired to keep the government from strengthening the standard. Forrest also testified that the incompletely bonded windshield would have caused a loss of up to 20% of the strength of the roof, so that the roof of plaintiff's car would not have passed 216.
Ford's roof design expert Ken Orlowski testified that FMVSS 216 is a reasonable standard and that roofs designed to that standard have been performing well in rollover accidents for many years. Statistical studies show that 97.4% of seat-belted occupants do not sustain serious injuries in rollovers. Studies also show there is no evidence that stronger roofs would reduce injuries in rollover accidents. The 1989 Escort passed FMVSS 216 by a wide margin. Orlowski showed the jury a rollover test film in which the head of a seat-belted occupant went out the side window in a car with a reinforced roof that did not deform, refuting plaintiff's claim that could not happen. Orlowski also addressed the relationship between the windshield and roof strength. In a FMVSS 216 test, Orlowski showed that the roof continued to resist the force applied to it even after the windshield broke. Ford also presented evidence that the windshield stayed in place through three rolls and it not compromise the strength of the roof or contribute to plaintiff's injury.
In addition to the roof and windshield claims, plaintiff also claimed that part of the right rear suspension failed while the car was sliding sideways and caused the car to roll. Ford's metallurgical expert Gary Fowler testified there was no evidence of any manufacturing defect in any part of the suspension, and the damage was consistent with a large impact to the right rear wheel. Ford's accident reconstruction expert Ronald Woolley demonstrated the friction trip mechanism that caused the car to roll and showed there were three slam-downs on the right rear wheel during the rollovers that caused the suspension damage.
After seven weeks of trial that began on January 29, the jury deliberated for three days, returning its verdict on March 26, 2002. The jury found no design defect in the roof, no manufacturing defect in the suspension and that the windshield bonding did not cause plaintiff's injuries. Plaintiff moved for a new trial based on insufficient evidence, and the Court denied the motion on May 21, 2002.
Ford was represented by Bowman and Brooke LLP in San Jose, California, and M. Gary Toole of Cabaniss, Smith, Toole & Wiggins, PL, in Maitland, Florida. Plaintiff was represented by Roger A. Dreyer of Dreyer, Babich, Buccola & Callaham in Sacramento, California, and Dan Rottier and Don Slavik of Habush, Habush, Davis & Rottier in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Sara Granda v. Ford Motor Company
Jurisdiction: Yolo County Superior Court, Woodland, California
Judge: William S. Lebov