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While waiting for a jury decision about punitive damages in a suit involving a woman paralyzed from the neck down after an Explorer accident, Ford decided to settle with the plaintiffs for an undisclosed sum.

Ford already has to pay more than $16 million in the suit to compensate for the alleged design defects in the 2002 Ford Explorer that caused the paralysis of Lynn Wheeler, then 58, in an accident on Christmas Day, 2005.

On the day of the accident, Wheeler was sitting in the back seat of the Explorer between her two grandchildren, both in booster seats. She was restrained by only a lap belt. When they were hit head on by a driver who had lost control of his 1995 Eagle Talon, the rear seat latch failed and the seat collapsed on her, and Wheeler’s head slammed forward into the front console, injuring her spinal cord beyond repair. She is still on a ventilator today. No one else in the accident was seriously injured.

The complaint asserted that the automaker’s design for both the rear seat latch and decision to install a lap belt rather than a three-point shoulder belt constituted negligence, and it also said Ford should have warned the Wheelers and the general public "of the dangers in a reasonably foreseeable collision presented by the design of the Ford Explorer rear seat, occupant restraint system and surrounding structures."

Ford countered that at the time of its manufacture, the Explorer met or exceeded all government safety standards. The lap belt was necessary, it says, because "lap belts were necessary to accommodate some child safety seats, and were, in some situations, safer for children who did not properly fit in the federally-mandated outboard lap/shoulder belts. Additionally, it was not technologically feasible to install a lap/shoulder belt in the rear center seating position of the Explorer’s bench seat."

As to the seat latch, it said, "Ford designed and tested that mechanism to withstand the forces generated by Mrs. Wheeler’s loading of the seat in this crash." –New Jersey Law Journal

However, Ford’s own crash test footage and memos, produced at trial, showed crash test dummies sustaining injuries similar to Wheeler’s. They also showed the rear seats collapsing, just as they did in the crash Wheeler was involved in.

Convinced that Ford was mostly at fault for Wheeler’s injuries, the jury decided it was liable for more than $16 million of the nearly $18 million it awarded to the Wheelers. The man who had caused the accident was liable for $1.2 million.

This case demonstrates the importance of not letting government safety standards preempt a company’s liability for the harms it causes. While Ford’s 2002 Explorer may have met these standards, the company knew that it was putting passengers at risk by keeping the single lap belt in the back seat. For this, the company should be liable. It’s good to see how overwhelmingly the jury in this case agrees.

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