There is an erroneous belief that someone filing a Tuscaloosa car accident lawsuit doesn’t have a high burden of proof or that the case will be generally less complex than other types of injury claims.
On the surface, this makes sense. After all, accident reports are usually quite clear: “Vehicle 1 strikes Vehicle 2. Driver of Vehicle 1 is at fault.” End of story. Right?
That’s seldom the case, as Fort Motor Company v. Washington, Arkansas Supreme Court, shows. What started as a simple car accident injury claim ended in a 13-year struggle after the case evolved into a product liability action against one of the largest auto manufacturers in the world.
The plaintiff was ultimately successful, but it was not without a great deal of legal wrangling.
According to court documents, in the summer of 2000, a man was driving with his 11-year-old son in a 1994 Ford Explorer when the vehicle was struck on the driver’s side by another vehicle whose driver had run a stop sign. The Explorer rolled over several times. The child and other driver walked away from the crash. The child’s father, however, suffered a severe head injury. He was transported to the hospital and declared dead soon thereafter.
In 2003, the man’s widow filed wrongful death actions against the other driver, as well as Ford Motor Co., the maker of the vehicle her husband had been driving.
The other driver entered into an undisclosed settlement agreement three years later.
Ford, unsurprisingly, fought on. The man’s widow accused Ford of negligence, strict liability, failure to warn and breach of warranties. She sought compensation for past and future medical expenses, lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering, mental anguish and mental harm loss of services, society and companionship, permanent injuries, property damage and funeral expenses, as well as punitive damages.
Specifically, the widow claimed the Ford Explorer had two primary defects:
A jury trial in 2010 resulted in a $7.1 million verdict in favor of the plaintiff – $2.5 of that in punitive damages.
Ford appealed on the grounds that the circuit court had abused its discretion by refusing to allow entry of evidence revealing the decedent’s failure to wear a seat belt at the time of the crash. However, Ark. Code Ann. 27-37-703 held that with regard to the admissibility of such evidence, the failure of an occupant to wear a properly adjusted seat belt is not admissible in a civil action. There are a few very specific exceptions, and the burden of proof falls on the defense to show that the case meets one of those exceptions.
The man’s widow argued that, at best, the allegation that her husband wasn’t wearing a seat belt was conjecture. In fact, a paramedic responding to the scene would later testify that he remembered having to undo the seat belt in order to reach the driver.
While an emergency room report listed the patient as an “unrestrained driver,” it was later revealed that emergency rooms generally list a patient as having been unrestrained if he or she was ejected from the vehicle during a crash. That reasoning fails to take into account a potentially defective vehicle, or any number of other circumstances.
The high court noted that the circuit court has broad discretion on such matters, and that an abuse of discretion – which might be grounds for a new trial – would only be proven if a decision to bar evidence was arbitrary. Thus, the high court rejected Ford’s argument that it was entitled to introduce evidence that might show the decedent wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time of a crash.
Ford had also demanded a new trial on the ground that the tempered glass issue was preempted by federal law regulating certain manufacturing standards. However, because the jury did not indicate what percentage of the decision was based upon the glass issue and what percentage was based upon the rollover issue, the high court said it had no choice but to affirm.
Fort Motor Company v. Washington, Dec. 12, 2012, Supreme Court of Arkansas, Appeal from Jefferson County Circuit Court
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