Sacramento Jury Holds Ford Motor Company Responsible in 15 Passenger Van Rollover Case
On November 10, 2011 a California jury awarded a verdict of $73 million dollars (including $50 million in punitive damages) against Ford Motor Company to the victims of a rollover crash that occurred when the right rear tire of the Ford E350 15 passenger van they were riding in experienced a tread separation. The jury found that Ford’s 15 passenger vans were dangerously defective and susceptible to loss of control from a tread separation. The jury also determined that Ford, had information from its tire supplier, Goodyear, about defective tires that had been installed on the vans, but failed to provide information to owners of E-350 Econoline 15 Passenger Vans that the defective Goodyear tires needed to be replaced. The jury determined that Ford’s conscious disregard of consumer safety in the design of the vans and its refusal to accept any responsibility to alert consumers was a breach of its responsibility as a manufacturer, and awarded punitive damages in the amount of $50 million.
The case involved a rollover crash that occurred on April 9, 2004. A Ford 15 Passenger Van owned by the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church suffered a catastrophic right-rear tire tread separation in Southern California while members of the church were on a choir tour. The tread separation caused the vehicle to go out of control, rolling over four times and killing its driver, Bill Brownell, and its front-seat passenger, Tony Mauro, and injuring other van occupants including Alex Bessonov.
Sacramento attorney Roger Dreyer, of the Dreyer, Babich, Buccola and Wood firm represented Tony Mauro’s widow, Susan Mauro and their children Cody and Michael Mauro. He brought in Greene, Broillet & Wheeler partner Christine Spagnoli as his co-counsel to represent the family of driver Bill Brownell. After the Brownell family settled their claims, Ms. Spagnoli, continued to represent another injured passenger, Alex Bessonov, at the trial against Ford.
Prior to associating in as co-counsel in the Mauro case, Ms. Spagnoli successfully represented a number of other victims who had lost family members or suffered serious injuries in similar cases involving Ford E350 15 passenger vans including Hanson, Anchetta and Demian. She also represented LAPD officer Brian Mathews who suffered a spinal cord injury when the Goodyear tire on his police vehicle experienced a tread separation. Ms. Spagnoli was also lead counsel in another Goodyear tire tread separation case on behalf of the Frankl and Schmidt families involving a rollover of an Air Force vehicle in Saudi Arabia that led to the deaths of three high ranking military officers. As a result of Ms. Spagnoli’s work in these prior cases, the plaintiffs in the Mauro case had key evidence and depositions of Ford and Goodyear employees about their knowledge concerning the safety hazards of the 15 passenger vans and Goodyear tires. That evidence proved crucial in the Jury’s findings against Ford in the Mauro trial.
The trial focused both on Ford’s original design of the E350 15 passenger vans, which dated back to the early 1970s and its knowledge of the particular tread separation risks associated with the Goodyear tires that Ford specified for use on the vans.
In 1974 Ford saw a market for a large “people mover” van and sought to put a vehicle on the market to compete with Chrysler and GM. During the development process, Ford’s own engineers recommended a longer wheelbase and dual rear wheels to address the handling difficulties of such a heavy extended vehicle. But in the rush to market, Ford management delayed and ultimately never implemented the safer design. The evidence demonstrated that in the ensuing decades, the vans were involved in numerous tragic crashes leading to multiple deaths, and prompting a first ever consumer advisory by NHTSA in 2001 about the unique dangers of 15 passenger vans. As part of the Mauro trial presentation, the jury saw videotaped testimony of James Vondale, Ford’s Director of Automotive Safety about the corporation’s knowledge of safety concerns involving the 15 passenger vans, particularly when a rear tire fails. Because Ford refused to bring him to testify at the trial, the plaintiffs played video testimony of Ms. Spagnoli’s cross examination of Mr. Vondale from the Hanson case.
Other evidence presented at trial included a determination by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) that large vans, like the Ford E-350 15 passenger van, were disproportionately involved in fatal rollover crashes following a tread separation of a rear tire. After NHTSA opened a defect investigation into the Load Range E tires in November, 2000, which was initiated after Ms. Spagnoli submitted evidence of 37 incidents involving the Goodyear tires, Goodyear agreed in February, 2002 to replace the older model tires that had been installed on 15 passenger vans with its new design that included a nylon overlay. In a key deposition taken by Ms. Spagnoli in 2000 in the Frankl case, Goodyear’s light truck tire design engineer, Beale Robinson, admitted that Goodyear had an alarming increase in tread separations of its Load Range E tires, (the tires used by Ford as original equipment on its 15 passenger vans), and that its design change adding nylon overlays dramatically reduced the risk. Ms. Spagnoli’s cross-examination of Mr. Robinson from the Frankl case was played for the Mauro jury as part of the evidence supporting the claim that the tire on the van was defective.
As early as 1999, Ford knew that Goodyear had changed the Load Range E tire design. Ford installed the safer tires on new E350 15 passenger vans beginning with the 2001 model year. Despite Ford’s knowledge of the investigation by NHTSA, the change in construction by Goodyear, and its own internal decision to use the safer tires on new vans, Ford never communicated this information to its customer base, owners of 15 Passenger Vans, or its dealerships.
In February of 2002, more than two years before the death of Tony Mauro and Bill Brownell, Ford was informed by Goodyear that it had entered into an agreement with NHTSA to perform a Voluntary Replacement Program to remove the old 4-ply Goodyear Load Range E Tires from all 1992 – 2000 model year 15 passenger vans. Goodyear specifically asked Ford to provide it with information to identify owners of the vans. These facts were proven through videotaped depositions taken by Ms. Spagnoli in the Mauro case of Goodyear employee William Gaudet and Ford employees Eric Kalis and Robert Wheelock. Ford refused to bring any of its employees to testify live during the Mauro trial, so the only testimony about Ford’s knowledge that the jury heard came from these pre-trial depositions.
At no time did Ford Motor Company ever alert its own dealers about the defective tire and the need to take them off the 15 Passenger Vans. The Goodyear Load Range E tire that failed in the crash was installed on Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church’s Van in 1999, prior to the change in construction by Goodyear and before Ford began using the safer tire as original equipment on 15 passenger vans in late 2000. Ford’s representatives testified that they did not notify their dealers or consumers because they viewed it as a “Goodyear campaign” and that they were never specifically asked by Goodyear or the government to notify their customers of this defective tire on the 15 Passenger Vans.
The jury, in its deliberations and ultimate verdict, determined that the van’s design was defective, and that the handling difficulties associated with the tread separation caused the crash. The jury concluded that the conduct of Ford Motor Company was despicable and ultimately decided that an appropriate punitive damage award of $50 million against Ford would, hopefully, educate its corporate officers on their failure to protect consumers from such foreseeable crashes.