HOUSTON-A Texas jury has ordered Ford Motor Co. to pay $23.5 million to the estate of a 21-year-old woman who died following a 1992 accident in which a Ford Bronco II rolled over during an apparent tire failure. Critics have charged the Ford-produced, sport-utility vehicle with being overly prone to rollover-type accidents. However, the jury's decision, June 22, made the state court in Houston the first such body in the U.S. to find the Ford Bronco II ``defective and unreasonably dangerous.''
Of the five parties it might have found at fault in the accident, including Continental General Tire Inc., which made the tire, the Houston jury placed 100 percent of the blame on Ford-finding it ``grossly negligent'' for the vehicle's design and manufacture.
The jury awarded $22.5 million in punitive damages and $1 million in compensatory damages for pain and suffering to the estate of Jennifer Cammack of Richardson, Texas, who died following the May 14, 1992, accident on Interstate Route 90 in Schulenberg, Texas.
The automaker expects punitive damages to be capped at $4 million, according to a company spokeswoman.
Ms. Commack's parents also were awarded $750,000 each for mental anguish.
She was one of seven people riding in the 1987 Bronco II, which police said swerved out of control and rolled over following a tread separation on its right rear tire. Two other passengers in the vehicle also were injured.
Continental General reached an out-of-court settlement with attorneys representing Ms. Commack prior to the trial's opening. In November 1994, the company had reached a similar agreement with another of the accident's victims, Kyle Kepple of Josha, Texas.
According to a report in Automotive News, Ford has paid $113.4 million to date in settling some 334 cases involving the Bronco II-at least some of which also are said to have involved tire failures.
It's not known how frequently tires have been a causal factor in such accidents since few lawsuits involving them have actually gone to trial and data gathered in connection with them has been sealed as a condition of the agreements between the manufacturer and plaintiffs.
However, auto safety advocates, including the Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, say more than 1 million GT52S tires, size P195/75R15 and P205/75R15, were installed on the Bronco II as original equipment.
Plaintiffs' attorneys and other auto safety critics contend Continental General, which manufactured the GT52S and its aftermarket counterparts more than five years ago, has settled all such damage suits out of court to date as a means of keeping its adjustment records and other data on the tires confidential.
In November 1994, Texas District Court Judge Carolyn Clause Garcia, at the request of these groups, ordered Continental General to make public such information under a unique Texas sunshine law.
However, the tire maker, which had argued that doing so would disclose its trade secrets and other proprietary information, has appealed the ruling to a higher court, which still is considering the matter. Meanwhile, information on the tires remains sealed from public scrutiny.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also at the urging of these same advocacy groups, twice has examined data submitted voluntarily by the manufacturer and determined that no pattern of safety defects exists that would necessitate recalling the tires.
The tires were produced between 1986 and 1990 at the company's Mount Vernon, Ill., plant. Although many have been removed from circulation over time, safety critics say some that saw only limited service as spare tires may still be in use.
Ann Therese Darin of Automotive News contributed to this report.