Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why does our jury system hold companies liable for producing completely legal products that, when used in an inappropriate manner, result in injury or death?
Crash verdict shows need for tort reform

Ford Motor Company builds a sport utility vehicle - the Explorer - that is particularly prone to rollover accidents.

This should come as no surprise, as virtually all SUVs are rollover threats. They tend to be taller for their width and length than standard passenger vehicles, and ride higher off the ground. Hence, they're more top-heavy than a sedan or sports car and when they get sideways, sometimes just a little bit, they have a tendency to tumble.

Such vehicles even come with warnings, usually in the owner's manual and often on stickers affixed in noticeable places inside the vehicle, for a daily reminder to drive carefully and pay particular heed to the rollover risk.

So a jury verdict in Miami Monday isn't as much an incrimination of Ford for building a bad vehicle as it is an indictment of an American legal system that lets juries dole out massive punishments - and let's not forget lucrative paydays for trial lawyers - when something goes wrong and someone gets hurt or killed using a legal product.

The jury in this case awarded $61 million to the mother of a 17-year-old boy killed in an Explorer rollover: That's $1.2 million in actual damages and $60 million in pain and suffering for the boy - who is not here to spend it - and his mother.

If Ford built a truly defective vehicle that didn't meet federal safety standards or in some other way caused the death of this young man through no fault of the operators, such a financial punishment might be merited. But Lance Crossman Hall died in a 1997 traffic accident not just because the Explorer can be tipsy when swerving, but because his friend and the driver of the vehicle, Melahn Parker, fell asleep at the wheel.

Parker, who was charged with reckless driving, awoke and tried to regain control of the Explorer. But a “handling problem” caused the SUV in her care to turn sideways and roll over.

The fault in this accident begins with a young motorist asleep at the wheel and ends with a tragic fatality. A contributing factor was the type of vehicle being driven - which probably could just as easily have been a Chevy Blazer or Isuzu Trooper or almost any other SUV.

Does that make Ford primarily liable for Lance Crossman's death? Not at all, certainly not to the tune of $61 million.

This case had a more tragic ending, and thus asks more important questions and is a more worthy court candidate, than the infamous lawsuits filed by those who pour hot coffee in their own laps or who eat themselves into obesity. But the end result in this game of my lawyer vs. yours all too often is the same: Massive financial awards by juries to individuals (or their victims) who first shirked their own responsibilities.

Like staying awake at the wheel.