A federal court jury in Jackson returned a defense verdict Friday afternoon in a products liability trial against Ford Motor Co.
The case involved the 2005 roll-over accident of a Ford Expedition SUV in which the teenage driver (Marion Hankins of Yazoo City) was ejected through the sun roof. It was a one vehicle accident and no one knows what caused Ms. Hankins to lose control of the vehicle. Ms. Hankins—who does not remember the accident—was paralyzed from the chest down as a result of her injuries.
The plaintiff alleged defective design and failure to warn. Plaintiff based the defective design theory on the allegation that Ford should have used laminated glass in the sunroof of the vehicle rather than tempered glass. Plaintiff contended that if Ford used laminated glass, then Hankins would not have been ejected from the Expedition or paralyzed in the accident. Here is the Complaint, which Plaintiff filed in 2008.
Ford’s main defenses included:
- the accident was not Ford’s fault;
- Ms. Hankins was not wearing her seat belt;
- all vehicles in the U.S. use tempered glass in the side windows and sunroofs; and
- laminated glass would not have kept Ms. Hankins in the vehicle.
It was a really long trial. Voir dire was on January 26. The actual trial started on January 30. The trial lasted for 19 courtroom days leading up to the March 2 verdict. Each side had an army of expert witnesses, most of whom charged a lot of money for their work in the case.
There was an approximately 10 day recess during the trial due to the sudden death of Judge Carlton Reeves’ mother. I’m sure I’m speaking for the entire Mississippi Bar when I offer my condolences to Judge Reeves and his family.
Each side had 1 hr. 40 mins. for closing arguments, which lasted until after 1:00 p.m. I am not sure the length of the jury’s deliberations. Here is the jury’s verdict, finding for Ford on both the defective design and failure to warn claim.
It was an 8–person jury with the following racial-gender demographics: 1 white male; 2 black females; 4 white women and 1 woman who appeared to be of Indian descent. The jury appeared to be very attentive during all my visits to the trial.
Plaintiff’s counsel included Myles Parker, Christopher Coleman, Chad Mask, Jacob Stutzman, and Kyle White of the Carroll Warren & Parker firm in Jackson and Barry Bridgforth of Yazoo City.
Ford’s lawyers included Gordon Sproule and Patrick Strubel of the Huie, Fernambucq & Stewart firm in Birmingham; Barry Ford, Bill Jones and Sterling Kidd of Baker Donelson in Jackson; and Mike Wallace of Wise Carter in Jackson (appellate counsel).
There were typically 12 or so lawyers in the courtroom during trial representing the parties.
I attended most of closing arguments and parts of another 4 days of this trial. The case was very well tried by the lawyers on both sides. I am usually a critic of parties using out-of-state lawyers for trials in Mississippi. But Sproule and Strubel did a good job and you wouldn’t have known they were from outside the state if you didn’t know it. That is a good thing for Ford. It’s my understanding that they are teeing another one up for Ford in state court in the Delta in a few weeks.
My take-away from the trial was that motor vehicle products cases are unimaginably expensive to litigate and laboriously tried. It was not unusual for one expert witness to be on the stand for an entire day with frequent interruptions for bench conferences with the judge.
It would be interesting to know Ford’s record in Mississippi trials since it began using Baker Donelson around 13 years ago. I can recall only one loss other than the thrice tried Brian Cole trial, which belongs in its own category.
A plaintiff has to run the gauntlet just to get past summary judgment in Ford products cases. Then you get to try the case against an army of defense lawyers who specialize in cases involving whatever defect you allege and who win probably over 80% of the time, with Mike Wallace sitting at the end of the table making sure everything is possibly done to create appeal issues if you lose.
This was my first trial to attend in the new federal courthouse in Jackson. It is really nice with good acoustics and gallery seating that allow easy viewing of the entire courtroom. The only downside from a spectator perspective are the benches. The seats need to be padded or viewing a trial for more than a couple of hours gets painful. If I had to watch a whole trial from the benches, I would bring a boat or stadium cushion.