Arkansas Supreme Court affirms $7 million judgment against Ford in Explorer Rollover death

by Michael Heygood

Johnny Ray Washington and his eleven-year-old son, Terian, were traveling in their 1994 Ford Explorer in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when their vehicle was struck on the driver’s side by another vehicle. The Explorer rolled over twice and landed right-side up. Terian walked away from the accident, but Johnny suffered a fatal head injury when his head exited the vehicle during the rollover and was crushed. When emergency-medical technicians arrived on the scene, Johnny was in severe distress but still had a pulse and slow respirations. Johnny was transported to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Johnny’s wife, on behalf of her husband’s estate and as Terian’s parent, sued Ford Motor Company alleging the Ford Explorer had two defects: (1) the propensity to roll over and (2) the use of tempered, rather than laminated, glass in the side windows that made ejection or partial ejection in a rollover more likely.

After a two-week trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that Ford and the driver of the of the other vehicle were equally responsible for Johnny’s death. The jury awarded $4,652,125 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

Ford Motor Company appealed the judgment to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Ford argued that there was insufficient evidence it was malicious or indifferent to the consequences of its actions and thus punitive damages were inappropriate. The Arkansas Supreme Court disagreed and has now affirmed the judgment. Ford Motor Co. v. Washington, 2013 Ark. 510 (Ark. December 12, 2013).

The court agreed with the plaintiff that she presented substantial evidence of Ford’s knowledge of the 1994 Explorer’s rollover tendencies. The plaintiff introduced evidence that Ford’s engineers had recommended four solutions to the Explorer’s rollover issues but that only two changes were made in order not to delay the vehicle’s production date. One of the plaintiff’s experts demonstrated to the jury the effectiveness of the previously recommended modifications of widening the track width of the vehicle and installing smaller tires, both of which were technically feasible and neither of which was implemented by Ford in the 1994 model despite the recommendations of its engineers.

Further, there was evidence that Ford had inadequately tested the vehicle, that it had tested the Explorer under unrealistic conditions, such as by placing sand bags on the floor instead of in the seats to lower the center of gravity, and that it had consciously disregarded the risk of rollover when it chose to sell the Explorer with the larger tires that Johnny’s vehicle had installed, despite management’s awareness of the risk associated with the larger tires. With regard to the glass glazing issue, the plaintiff presented evidence as to the feasibility of installing properly framed laminated side windows, the minimal cost of such windows, the fact that Johnny would not have suffered fatal injuries had such glazing been installed, and the knowledge by Ford engineers as to the superiority of laminated glazing in cases of rollover.

Based on the evidence presented at trial, the Arkansas Supreme Court concluded there was substantial evidence to support the jury’s award of punitive damages in this case. The judgment against Ford was affirmed with the exception of an issue regarding calculation of interest on the judgment.

Crashworthiness, Vehicle and Tire Defect Litigation

Car and truck manufacturers have a duty to build a car that is as safe as is reasonably possible under the present state of mechanical technology, vehicle design, and safety. Manufacturers are obligated to design vehicles so that they are safe for any reasonably foreseeable use. Obviously, it is reasonably foreseeable that any car or truck will be involved in a collision. Thus, a car manufacturer’s duty includes designing a vehicle that is reasonably safe when a collision occurs.

The ability of a vehicle to protect the occupants of a vehicle in a crash is called “crashworthiness.” The concept of “crashworthiness” refers broadly to numerous features— for example: seat belts, crumple zones and airbags—which are designed to minimize occupant injuries, prevent ejection from the vehicle, and reduce the risk of fire.

A crashworthiness case could involve aspects of the vehicle such as:

  • Air Bags
  • Auto Glass
  • Child Seats
  • Doors
  • Fires
  • Rollovers
  • Roof (“roof crush”)
  • Seat Belts
  • Tires

If you or a loved one have been seriously injured in a car accident, it may well be that the injuries were caused or made worse because the vehicle was not sufficiently crashworthy. In order to determine whether you may have a case, you need to retain experienced, qualified legal counsel at the earliest opportunity.

At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we have the experience and knowledge to pursue a crashworthiness claim against any of the major auto manufacturers. Contact Heygood, Orr & Pearson for your free case evaluation and to learn more about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free contact form located on this page.

by Michael Heygood

Michael Heygood is a licensed attorney and partner at HO&P who focuses on insurance and corporate litigation, and other civil arenas. Michael has been named multiple times to the Super Lawyers List.