Ford Motors' appeal San Diego Woman's Product Liability Judgement

December 2009

While we waited to hear what the Supreme Court would do with the Ford Motors' appeal of the San Diego, California woman's $82.6 million product liability judgement, much is being discussed about how to avoid a roll over. Tire pressure is one huge and simple ingredient to avoid rollover danger, also ensuring that your auto tires are in good condition on a regular basis.

Any auto accident is horrible to experience, but a rollover has a terribly high probability of serious injury and even fatality. In the end, the Supreme Court Justices rejected Ford's appeal. The San Diego, California woman who was paralyzed as a result of the violent rollover had already won a much higher judgement which had already been reduced from the initial $364 million initially awarded. In the end, it is quite significant that the high punitive damages in the product liability case held.

"The woman was paralyzed in 2002 when her Ford Explorer rolled over and its roof gave way. Ford argued that punitive damages were unconstitutional because the vehicle design met safety standards." [1] The plaintiff argued Ford knew the van was prone to rollovers. Ford argued in its defense that the vans meet Federal safety standards. According to the LA Times:

The jury was told, however, that Ford could have strengthened the roof and possibly avoided such a catastrophic accident had it spent an extra $20 per vehicle […] In 2006, the state appeals court rejected Ford's appeals and set the verdict as $27.6 million in compensatory damages and $55 million in punitive damages.[1]

SUV and Van Rollover Accidents

Some say all SUV's are top heavy and as such, more at risk to rollover accidents. 15 passenger vans could be the most dangerous vehicle on the road in terms of rollover which often result in serious injury and fatality. In Oregon, we have certainly held close the catastrophic danger when these 15 passenger vans roll as there have been several high profile stories of these vans and the terrible injury and fatalities that resulted in the rollover aftermath. CBS 60 Minutes was early to explore thie claim about 15 passenger vans Spring 2002, and in Sept. 4, 2002 this follow up:

The problem, according to auto safety experts, is the design — the weight and balance of the van. [...] "I don’t think a vehicle with their rollover rate should be on the road,” he says of the 15-passenger van." [2]

In fact, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation, started issuing consumer advisories in 2001 about the danger of rollover with 15 passenger vans.

Consumer Advisory: As summer travel season approaches, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is again urging all 15-passenger van users to take appropriate precautions to guard against the possibility of a tragic rollover crash. [3]

NHTSA data enforces the importance of wearing seatbelts. For some reason, passengers in these 15 passenger vans often are not wearing their seatbelts. Hopefully we can greatly increase our safety by wearing proper restraints at all times.

Make sure all passengers are buckled up at all times. NHTSA research shows that 80 percent of the occupants killed in van rollovers were not belted at the time of the crash. [4]

The NHTSA 2003-2007 report on van rollovers basically state that the 15 passenger van is not safe as a 15 passenger van. In fact, the NHTSA suggests loading 10 passengers maximum in these vans:

NHTSA research has shown that 15-passenger vans have a rollover risk that increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five to more than ten. In fact, 15-passenger vans with 10 or more occupants had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that had fewer than five occupants. [5]

Yet, the Federal Government does not deem these 15 passenger vans absolutely safe, at least not a safe enough auto to be sold as a new vehicle for the purpose of shuttling our children as the designated school or day care vehicle. In fact, the Federal Government has a limited statute against these 12 and 15 passenger vans. In addition, many colleges, and even businesses have thier own internal mandates against using these vans due to the growing concern that these vehicles are just unsafe.

Fatalities are a subsequent event to rollover, where the crashworthiness of the vehicles as well as other factors, such as restraint use, play a role in the severity of injuries. NHTSA’s statute at 49 U.S.C. §30112 requires that conventional 12 to 15-passenger vans cannot be sold or leased, as new vehicles, to carry students high-school age or younger to/from schools and child day-care facilities on a regular basis. [5]

The NHTSA also warns about placing any load on the roof of these vans as well as stating that these vans become unsafe when driven at speeds over 50 mph or on winding roads. It should be noted that 55 mph is a slow highway speed and that many interstates in the country allow speeds of 70 mph and even 75 mph. Barbur Blvd. in SW Portland has a speed limit of 45 mph and curves that are banked inversely at some points, which by these consumer safety alerts, must mean that even roads within Portland, these large vans may not be safe.

The analysis of 15-passenger van crashes also shows that the risk of rollover increases significantly at speeds over 50 miles per hour and on curved roads [...] Placing any load on the roof also raises the center of gravity and increases the likelihood of a rollover. [6]


[1] Penalty stands in Ford rollover case; The Supreme Court rejects an appeal of an $83-million verdict.
Los Angeles Times - Los Angeles, Calif. Author: David G. Savage, Dec 1, 2009, Start Page: B.6, Section: Business; Part B; Business Desk
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