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North Carolina Jury Exonerates Ford in Child Paralysis Seat Belt Case
CHARLOTTE, NC – After five weeks of trial, a unanimous state court jury agreed on May 3, 2007 that Ford Motor Company was not responsible for the injuries to two children resulting from an automobile accident that left one a paraplegic. Plaintiffs Cheyenne Stark (now age 9) and Cody Stark (now age 13), demanded compensatory and punitive damages in their Complaint and asked for $25 million dollars for Cheyenne and $200,000 for Cody in their closing argument at trial. The jury found that Ford was not liable for either of the children’s claims.
Plaintiffs claimed that Ford had been unreasonable in its design of the rear outboard seat belts in the 1998 Ford Taurus because they were not safe for small children. Plaintiffs further alleged that Ford could have prevented this by installing alternative feasible designs, such as larger-diameter spools, retractor and/or buckle pretensioners, recessed buckles, shorter belt webbing, and/or web grabbers. Ford maintained that the Taurus was a safe car with good seatbelts that met all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that were exhaustively tested, and not defective. Moreover, Ford asserted product misuse and not product defect caused these injuries in that both children, who were under 70 pounds, should have been placed in a belt positioning booster seat as the Owner’s Manual instructed and also, because Cheyenne was wearing the shoulder belt behind her back on the day of the accident.
The underlying crash happened on April 28, 2003. Mr. Stark was in the front passenger seat, and the children were seated in the back seat: Cheyenne, then age 5, was seated behind the driver; Cody, then age 9, was seated behind the front passenger seat; and Cory, then age 3, was seated in the center rear in a child seat with a five-point harness. Either as the result of an altercation or confusion, Mrs. Stark accelerated the car full throttle almost 100 feet across a parking lot, drove over a grassy median, through the drive-through lane, and into the large concrete base of a light pole, reaching a speed of 26 miles per hour at impact. The impact resulted in a delta V of 30 mph (26 mph with a 4 mph rebound).
Mrs. Stark was uninjured. Mr. Stark, who was unbelted, received a broken wrist, a broken shoulder, and cuts to his face from impacting the windshield. Cory received a small cut to his eyelid, but was otherwise uninjured. Cody received a laceration to his liver and tears in part of his large and small intestines. The most severely injured child was Cheyenne, who received injuries to her spine at T12/L1 and a spinal cord stretch injury at T3/T4. Although Cheyenne was walking immediately after the accident, later that day she developed numbness and eventually paralysis at the mid-chest area, and now is permanently paralyzed.
At trial, Ford asserted that the seat belt design of the 1998 Ford Taurus met all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, that Ford had carefully designed and thoroughly tested the Taurus and its seatbelts. Ford also asserted that the children’s injuries could have been prevented if they had been placed into an age-appropriate belt-positioning booster seat on the day of the accident. Finally, Ford asserted Cheyenne’s injuries could have been minimized if she had worn the belt properly as it was designed and intended.
The eight-man, four-woman jury deliberated for three days before rendering their unanimous defense verdict. The jury found no proximate cause of any injuries as to Cody Stark. The jury found that Cheyenne Stark’s claim was barred by the affirmative defense of “product alteration” in that Ford met its burden of proof that her enhanced injuries were proximately caused by the shoulder belt being worn behind her back and not in conformity with the design intent of the seatbelt.
Cheyenne Saleena Stark, a Minor, and Cody Brandon Stark, a Minor, by their Guardian ad Litem, Nicole Jacobsen, v. Ford Motor Company
Case No. 04 CVS 7636
Judge Forret Don Bridges
Superior Court of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
Attorneys for Defense:
Sandra Giannone Ezell, Managing Partner, and Candace A. Blydenburgh, Partner, of the Richmond Office of Bowman and Brooke LLP, and Kirk G. Warner, Partner, and Christopher R. Kiger, Associate, of the Raleigh Office of Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell and Jernigan, LLP
Attorneys for Plaintiffs:
James L. Gilbert and Stuart A. Ollanik of Gilbert, Frank, Ollanik, and Komyatte, P.C., M. Bryan Slaughter of Michie Hamlett Lowry Rasmussen & Tweel PLLC, and Stefan Latorre and Brian Hochman of the Law Offices of Stefan Latorre
Experts testifying for Defense:
Murray Mackay, Ph.D. – Biomechanic and Traffic Safety Expert – Isle of Man, United Kingdom
Joseph Kent – Accident Reconstructionist – Marietta, Georgia
Pamela Oviatt – Seat Belt Design Expert – Logan, Iowa
Experts testifying for Plaintiffs:
Joseph Burton, M.D. – Biomechanic – Alpharetta, Georgia
Stephen Syson – Seat Belt Design Expert – Goleta, California
Gary Albrecht, Ph.D. – Economist – Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Peder Melberg – Vocational Rehabilitation Expert – Glen Allen, Virginia
Sharon Reavis – Life Care Planning Expert – Glen Allen, Virginia