BARSTOW, Calif. (Feb. 8, 2002)—Ford Motor Co. and a Los Angeles plaintiff's attorney are publicly disputing the significance of the verdict in a wrongful injury case in Barstow Superior Court.
The case—which involved the catastrophic injuries of an Orange County, Calif., couple when their Ford Explorer rolled over—was the first in which a jury ruled that the basic design of the Explorer is faulty, according to attorney Garo Mardirossian of Mardirossian & Associates.
The couple settled for $14.9 million after a Barstow jury found a Ford dealership liable for the accident that crippled them. Agop and Catherine Gozukawa received $9.4 million from Joe Macpherson Ford, which allegedly made faulty repairs on the Gozukawas' 1994 Ford Explorer, and $5.5 million against the highway construction company that built the concrete barrier on which the Gozukawas crashed in 1997.
Mr. Mardirossian, the Gozukawas' attorney, said Ford would have to indemnify Joe Macpherson Ford because the jury found the Explorer's design defective. A Ford spokeswoman, however, said Mr. Mardirossian was completely incorrect. “Ford was found not liable for this accident,” she said. “The dealership is an individually liable entity. We are not linked in this case.”
Ford said this was a gross misinterpretation of the jury verdict, and that the Explorer's design was exonerated. The car maker was not found liable in the verdict, the company noted, but rather, the guilty party was the Ford dealership that made faulty repairs.
The Gozukaras were driving to Las Vegas in 1997—shortly after buying the vehicle used from Joe Macpherson Ford, a California dealership—when Agop Gozukara swerved to avoid a truck. The truck bounced off a wall and skidded 100 feet before rolling over.
Agop Gozukara suffered severe leg injuries that to this day hinder his ability to walk, according to the case. Catherine Gozukara was rendered paraplegic and lost her unborn baby.
According to a press release from Mardirossian & Associates, the Barstow jury—which rendered its verdict Jan. 31—“agreed with plaintiff's attorneys and declared that the Ford Explorer is defective by design with a propensity to roll over during emergency avoidance procedures.”
Ford, however, noted in its own press release that the jury ruled the Explorer itself did not cause the Gozukaras' injuries. Instead, it blamed allegedly faulty repairs in the Ford dealership's repair shop.
“Ford Motor Co. is absolved of all responsibility for this accident and faces no liability,” the auto maker said. This is the third jury, it added, that has exonerated the Explorer.
“Our sympathies go out to the Gozukara family, but this was an unfortunate accident,” Ford said. “The evidence showed that the Explorer rode up a concrete barrier and almost immediately rolled over—as any other comparable vehicle would have done in the circumstances. In addition, neither the driver nor the passenger was wearing a seat belt.”
A spokesman for Mardirossian & Associates acknowledged that Ford was not found liable. “But the jury also found that the I-beam design (of the Explorer) was defective as it rolled off the assembly line,” he said.
A Ford spokeswoman in turn accused Mardirossian & Associates of trying to put a positive spin on a verdict that went against them. “They lost what they thought would be a simple case against a deep-pocket company, and the jury found that the Explorer did not cause the accident,” she said.
Ever since the August 2000 recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, which were mostly original equipment on Ford Explorers, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have fought over assignment of blame. The tire maker claims the design of the Explorer played a role in the rollover accidents that caused 271 highway deaths, while Ford has insisted the tires alone were at fault in the numerous tread separations that allegedly caused some of the accidents.
Bridgestone/Firestone declined comment on the Barstow case.