DETROIT (Dec. 3, 2009) — Ford Motor Co. had its plea to review a rollover-liability case rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 30, leaving the auto maker to pay the $55 million punitive-damage award.
Ford had requested that the court review a California judgment for Benetta Buell-Wilson and her husband. She was paralyzed below the waist in 2002 when her 1997 Explorer rolled over several times on a San Diego expressway and its roof collapsed. The crash happened when Ms. Buell-Wilson swerved to miss debris that fell off a vehicle in front of her.
A jury first awarded the California couple nearly $123 million for personal and economic losses. The jurors said Ford should pay an additional $246 million in punitive damages for “maliciously” making an unsafe product.
A trial judge and an appeals court changed those amounts. Ultimately, Ford was ordered to pay $27.6 million in actual damages and $55 million in punitive damages.
Ford has already paid the actual damage amount and now has to pay an $88 million punitive award, said Jerome Falk, Ms. Buell-Wilson's attorney. That amount includes the 10 percent interest required by California law for punitive damages, he said.
Mr. Falk said he does not think Ford will argue the interest amount.
Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans declined to answer questions about the case. In an e-mail, she said only: “We are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take this opportunity to address some very important issues about runaway punitive damages.”
In requesting the appeal, Ford had argued that vague California laws had left the auto maker unaware of its exposure to punitive damages, Mr. Falk said. Other auto makers had backed Ford's stance.
“This vagueness issue is going to be around for a while,” Mr. Falk said Nov. 30. “I'm sure the auto makers and other businesses will continue to raise it. The California courts didn't think much of it. But I don't think it is the last word.”
In his response to Ford's petition to the Supreme Court, Mr. Falk said Ford hadn't raised the vagueness issue in the lower courts. He also pointed to two punitive-damages cases in which the Supreme Court rejected vagueness claims.
This was the case's second trip to the Supreme Court. When Ford first requested a hearing in 2007, the court ordered the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego to reconsider the award to Ms. Buell-Wilson in light of a Supreme Court ruling that juries cannot use punitive damages to punish defendants for harm caused to third parties.
The appeals court affirmed its original award total and rejected a bid by Ford for a new trial. Ford then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.
The Supreme Court grants only about 1 percent of the petitions it gets.
Reuters contributed to this report, which appeared in Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.