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Watts v. Ford

Feb 28, 2003


Jury finds for Ford in sudden acceleration suit

SACRAMENTO, CA - On Friday, February 28, 2003, a Sacramento County jury returned a verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, finding that a1989 Ford Taurus had no defect in the design of its cruise control system, door latch and seat belt, as claimed by Carolyn Watts. The jury returned its verdict in less than two hours after an eight-week trial.

The accident happened on September 6, 1998, when plaintiff Carolyn Watts intended to back out of a driveway in her 1989 Ford Taurus. Watts claimed she was seat belted with her door closed, and the car "just took off" when she shifted into reverse. The car accelerated out of the driveway, across the street and into a house. Watts was found partially outside the open driver’s door with her seat belt unbuckled. She sustained severe injuries to her left leg, requiring multiple surgeries and incurring $330,000 in medical expenses. Her damages experts claimed nearly $1 million for her costs of future care. Plaintiffs’ counsel asked the jury to award $4.5 million in compensatory damages to Philemon and Carolyn Watts.

Plaintiffs’ claimed the car accelerated because of design defects in the cruise control system that allowed "transient" electrical signals to activate the cruise control while the car was standing still, leaving no evidence behind to explain what happened. They also claimed the car door was defective in design and that it "inertially unlatched" during the accident. Finally, they claimed the seat belt was defective in design and that Watts inadvertently unbuckled the belt during the accident.

Plaintiffs sought punitive damages on their sudden acceleration claim, alleging Ford committed malice and fraud in its investigation of sudden acceleration reports in the 1980s. Ford’s investigation, corroborated by findings of a yearlong industry-wide investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, concluded in most cases sudden acceleration incidents are caused by the driver mistakenly stepping on the accelerator pedal instead of the brake. Ford, along with all other auto manufacturers, responded by installing brake shift interlocks that require drivers to have their foot on the brake as they shift from park into gear. Installation of brake shift interlocks nearly eliminated reports of sudden acceleration throughout the auto industry.

Ford presented evidence at trial of its own extensive investigation of reports of sudden acceleration incidents. Ford ruled out the cruise control as the cause because redundancies in the system made it virtually impossible for the cruise control to be activated when a vehicle is standing still. Ford’s electrical engineering expert explained the redundancies, backups and fail-safes in the design of the cruise control system, as well as the brake system, which would have stopped the car very quickly if Watts had stepped hard on the brake pedal, as she believed she had. Although plaintiffs were allowed to introduce into evidence the testimony of several other people who believed they had experienced sudden acceleration incidents, as well as documentation of other alleged incidents, the jury found no defect in the cruise control system.

Plaintiffs’ experts had found no evidence of any malfunction in the seat belt or door latch. Ford’s experts presented evidence that Watts most likely had never closed the door, had her left foot outside the car before the car began to move, and had either never buckled her belt or had unbuckled it herself at some point before or after the accident. The jury found no defect in either system.

Attorneys for the defense were: Bowman and Brooke LLP, San Jose, and James J. Yukevich, of Yukevich & Sonnett in Los Angeles.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs were: David Mackenroth of Mackenroth, Ryan and Fong in Sacramento, and Patrick Murray, of Murray & Murray in Sandusky, Ohio

Experts for the defense were:
Victor Declercq, cruise control, Macomb, MI
David Mercaldi, Ph.D., accident reconstruction, Boxborough, MA
Daniel Girvan, biomechanical engineering, Palo Alto, CA
Thomas Tiede, door latch, Huntington Beach, CA
Roger Burnett, seat belt, Dearborn, MI

Experts for the plaintiffs were:
William Berg, Ph.D., human factors and accident reconstruction, Madison, WI
Gary Derian, cruise control, Columbus, OH
Andrew Gilberg, door latch, Kennesaw, GA
Keith Friedman, seat belt, Santa Barbara, CA
Alex Barchuk, MD, rehabilitation, Kentfield, CA
Carol Hyland, costs of care, Lafayette, CA
Michael Ueltzen, economics, Sacramento, CA

Judge: Maryanne Gilliard
Court: Sacramento County Superior Court
Case #: 99AS04959

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