CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE.
On January 14, 2010, a state district court jury in Sibley County, Minnesota returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, finding no defect in the design of the 1993 Ford Explorer SUV, and rejecting plaintiff's claims that the vehicle had rolled over due to lack of roll stability and that the crushing of an allegedly defective roof caused the driver's back injury and permanent paralysis.
This case arose out of a two-vehicle crash that occurred on October 28, 2006, at the intersection of two rural highways near Gaylord, Minnesota. Plaintiff Poehler was driving his 1993 Ford Explorer, traveling eastbound through the intersection, and Charlene Reinke (a previous co-defendant who had settled with the plaintiff by the time of trial) was driving her 2003 Buick Rendezvous southbound, when she failed to stop at a stop sign before crossing the highway in front of Mr. Poehler. When she pulled out in front of him, plaintiff Poehler braked and steered hard to the right, sliding sideways, rolling over into Reinke's vehicle, and continuing to roll off road. Plaintiff Poehler, the driver of the Explorer, sustained a burst fracture to the thoracic region of his back, rendering him paraplegic.
Plaintiff alleged that his vehicle entered a sideways slide because of a defect and malfunction in the anti-lock brake system (ABS), but the Court dismissed the brake claim against Ford during trial, finding that the requirements of Minnesota law to submit that particular claim to the jury had not been met. Plaintiff also claimed that the rollover was caused by the Explorer's alleged insufficient roll stability and that the vehicle was also defective with respect to its roof strength. Plaintiff was also seeking punitive damages against Ford for alleged "deliberate disregard" of safety with regard to the roll resistance of the Ford Explorer. Expert witnesses for the plaintiff were: Robert J. Caldwell of Lafayette, Colorado, accident reconstruction; Stephen R. Syson, Goleta, California, roof design and performance; Mariusz Ziewjewski, Fargo, North Dakota, injury mechanism; David A. Renfroe, Farmington, Arkansas, handling and stability; and, Linda Graham, Roseville, Minnesota, life care damages. With respect to the "roof strength" allegations, Ford responded that the Explorer has a strong and safe roof, exceeding the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and that the severity of this crash, including three cumulative impacts to the roof, exceeded what even plaintiff's roof expert admitted is more than any roof structure should be expected to withstand. Moreover, Ford produced evidence showing that the plaintiff's back injury was not caused by roof crush, but rather, was caused by the major wheels-down impact, off-road at the bottom of a hill at the end of the rollover, causing the driver's torso to move into the stopped buttocks and fracturing the spine. Thus, under Ford's analysis of injury causation, the crushing of the roof did not cause this injury. With regard to the roll stability claim, Ford argued that the handling and stability of the Explorer had been proven in extensive testing and that real-world accident data has shown that the Explorer performs very well in overall safety. Ford argued that the fact that an SUV can be forced to rollover on road does not indicate defect in severe accident conditions like this, where the driver skidded and left tire marks at over 60 mph, slid sideways and yawed at over 50 mph, and rolled over at over 40 mph.
Testifying on the technical issues for Ford Motor Co. were: Geoffrey Germane (Provo, Utah) accident reconstruction; Ford engineer, Michael J. Leigh (Dearborn, Michigan) roof design and testing; Jeffrey Croteau (Natick, Massachusetts) roof design and performance; Robert L. Piziali (San Carlos, California) injury mechanism; Robert Pascarella (Canton, Michigan) brake design and performance; Donald Tandy (Magnolia, Texas) handling and stability; and, Michael Klima (Novi, Michigan) seat damage analysis. Trial began on December 2, 2009 and, on January 14, 2010, the ten-person jury returned the unanimous verdict, finding that the Explorer was not defective and Ford had no liability. The jury allocated 75% of the fault for plaintiff's injuries to Charleen Reinke and 25% of the fault to Eric Scot Poehler. The jury assessed damages of $1.5 million for medical expenses and $300,000 for pain and suffering.
Ford Motor Co. was represented at trial by Bowman and Brooke LLP attorneys: David R. Kelly (Minneapolis) and David N. Lutz (Minneapolis).
Plaintiffs were represented by Larry E. Coben, Coben & Associates, Scottsdale, Arizona; Richard L. Denney, Denney & Barrett, P.C., Norman, Oklahoma; and Paul D. Peterson, Harper & Peterson, P.L.L.C., Woodbury, Minnesota.
Eric Scot Poehler v. Ford Motor Co.
Case No.: 72-CV-08-302
Venue: Sibley County District Court, Minn.
Verdict Returned: January 14, 2010