July 25, 2011
The Senior Judge of the Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit has set aside a jury verdict in favor of Ford Motor Company, blasting the automaker for defrauding the court and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by claiming that it knew of no other cause of unintended acceleration than driver error and for concealing years of testing that showed that electromagnetic interference was a frequent root cause of UA in Ford vehicles.
In his withering decision, Senior Judge William T. Swigert of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Sumter County, Florida ordered a new trial in which the jury would only consider compensatory and punitive damages in Stimpson v. Ford. The post-trial order is a victory for Attorney Thomas J. Murray, of Murray & Murray based in Sandusky, Ohio, who represented the Stimpson family.
The case concerned an October 28, 2003 crash which left Peggy Stimpson permanently paralyzed. Her husband alleged that he was unable to stop the couple’s 1991 Ford Aerostar, when it suddenly accelerated from their carport as he put the van into gear. The Aerostar hurtled more than 100 feet, and crashed into a utility pole.
In his 51-page decision, Judge Swigert excoriated Ford for systematically concealing a long history, stretching back to the 1970s, of studying the problem of electromagnetic interference and unintended acceleration, working to resolve it, but nonetheless finding many instances of it in the real world. Swigert enumerated each step Ford took in achieving a high level of corporate malfeasance – among them, lying to NHTSA, systematically destroying field technical reports that identified electromagnetic interference with the cruise control servo as a cause of unintended acceleration and misleading its own experts, who have repeatedly testified in other cases that driver error had to be the cause of such events.
“The proofs introduced at trial include various patents owned by Ford showing that electronic malfunctions in the cruise control system can cause sudden, unintended acceleration, in addition to reports from Ford’s engineers, including SIRs and CQIS reports, diagnosing sudden acceleration as a problem with the cruise control system. Ford’s Ishikawa engineering diagram likewise shows that EMI is a cause of sudden unintended acceleration.”
Swigert’s decision also rapped Ford’s Counsel J. Randolph Bibb for accusing the Stimpson’s attorney of lying and withholding the results of expert witness tests conducted to show what caused the tire marks left by the Stimpson’s Aerostar as it rocketed out of the carport. Both sides agreed that testimony regarding the tests would not be introduced, since they had not been recorded. But at trial, Ford’s attorney brought them up in a cross-examination and in his closing arguments, suggesting that the results had been withheld from the jury because they were unfavorable to the Stimpsons’ theory of the case.
We will recount the history of Ford’s concealment in all of its ignominious detail in a future blog post, and its implications for the much-relied-upon conclusions of the1989 An Examination of Sudden Acceleration, known within NHTSA as “The Silver Book.” Manufacturers, such as Ford, have been waving this tome in front of juries in UA cases, as proof positive of driver error. Judge Swigert, weighing it against Ford’s knowledge of electronic causes of unintended acceleration, as sketched by the internal documents and Ford employee testimony that the plaintiffs introduced at trial, was not impressed. He found it was based on false information and untested assumptions, for which no empirical evidence existed.