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California Judge Reduces Damage Award for Victim of Ford Explorer Crash to $150 Million

SAN DIEGO August 19, 2004; Michelle Morgante writing for the AP reported that a California judge upheld a jury verdict that Ford Motor Co. was responsible for an accident that left a woman paralyzed when her Explorer rolled over, but reduced the damages against the automaker from $369 million to $150 million.

Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright said in his ruling Thursday the evidence presented at trial earlier this year showed Ford "acted with malice and that Ford acted with a conscious disregard for the safety of others."

"Ford cannot protect itself by arguing the vehicle meets all applicable safety standards when there is evidence Ford knew of potentially fatal defects during the development and manufacture of the vehicle not addressed by the safety standards and chose not to remedy those problems," he wrote. "Such acts constitute despicable conduct and expose Ford to the prospect of punitive damages."

Ford plans to appeal, said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., an attorney for the Dearborn, Mich.-based company.

Attorneys for defendant Benetta Buell-Wilson argued the automaker used weak support pillars in the vehicle "which resulted in the Explorer having a propensity to collapse in a rollover collision."

Buell-Wilson, 49, was driving on an interstate east of San Diego in January 2002 when she swerved to avoid a metal object and lost control of her 1997 Explorer, which rolled 4 1/2 times. The San Diego mother of two was paralyzed from the waist down when the roof collapsed on her neck.

In one of the biggest personal-injury awards ever against an automaker, a jury on June 4 awarded her $246 million in punitive damages following its award of $122.6 million in compensatory damages two days earlier.

In his ruling Thursday, Enright said the damages awarded were excessive. He lowered the compensatory damages to $70 million for Buell-Wilson and $5 million for her husband, Barry Wilson, who has become her caretaker and had been granted $13 million by the jury. Punitive damages were lowered to $75 million.

Ford requested a retrial on the grounds of excessive damages. Enright said he would agree if the plaintiffs reject a reduction in the award.

Dennis Schoville, one of Buell-Wilson's attorneys, said he advised the couple to take their time in deciding whether to accept the reduced amount.

A Ford spokeswoman, Kathleen Vokes, declined to comment, saying she had not seen the ruling.

Boutrous said the "reduction of the award does not cure the fundamental problems with the verdict."

"The Explorer complied with all government and industry standards and has an extremely strong safety record," he said. "But the trial court erroneously ruled that the real-world safety record of the Explorer couldn't be introduced to the jury."

He also said internal documents "show Ford engineers were trying to be careful and were concerned with making the safest product they could."

Buell-Wilson said she was frustrated that Ford has not expressed regret or acknowledged its mistakes.

"I'm the kind of driver they market these cars to and, if anything, that's the frustrating thing to me because they don't show any remorse at all," she said.

Buell-Wilson hopes to continue her graduate studies and become a teacher. Regarding the monetary award, she said, "I'd give it all back if I could walk again."