(August 4, 2018) A state court judge sanctioned the Ford Motor Company in a rollover case in Georgia last month. The Gwinnett County State Court judge in tiny Lawrenceville (Pop. 30,782) forbid the auto giant from challenging its fault in a wrongful death rollover lawsuit. The judge levied several sanctions against Ford for conduct which he said forced a mistrial in an F-250 pickup rollover case in his court.
The case involves two people who were killed when a 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 Crew Cab pickup rolled over after a tire blowout.
Ford Caused Mistrial
“Ford intentionally, and after several warnings and admonitions, elicited testimony that forced this Court to declare a mistrial,” declared Judge Shawn Bratton. He then sanctioned Ford for trial conduct over the 2014 truck crash deaths of Melvin and Voncile Hill.
The judge said, “Plainly, Ford willfully caused a mistrial in this case, in bad faith, and issue preclusion sanctions are appropriate.”
Judge Bratton’s order came in response to plaintiffs’ request for sanctions. It bars Ford from challenging its liability as to design defect and failure to warn claims. Further, it sets up a trial focused on damages, which includes potential punitive damages against Ford.
The sanctions came three months after Judge Bratton declared a mistrial in proceedings over the rollover which killed the Hills as they drove along SR 49 in Americus, Georgia. During the April 2018 trial, the Hills’ family survivors claimed there was a dangerously weak roof in the couple’s 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 Crew Cab pickup.
As he issued the sanctions, Judge Bratton said a Ford attorney, Huie’s Alan Thomas, willfully violated repeated court directives when he asked defense expert Dr. Thomas McNish to give his opinion on Melvin Hill’s cause of death.
Judge Bratton wrote: “The Court instructed Ford’s counsel, Alan Thomas, to explain to McNish, before his testimony began, that he would not be allowed to give specific cause of death opinions. In clear disregard of the Court’s ruling, Mr. Thomas asked Dr. McNish whether he agreed with Plaintiffs’ expert’s opinion as to the cause of Mr. Hill’s death. Dr. McNish then opined, before the jury, the very testimony that the court prohibited — i.e. his opinion as to the cause of Mr. Hill’s death.”
Judge Bratton also noted in his sanctions ruling that Ford’s legal team violated earlier orders barring them from questioning the Hills’ seatbelt use or arguing any fault on the Hills’ part.
The judge said that Ford “deliberately injected the seatbelt use, as relevant, at least twice, before the jury,” and referred to a post-mortem toxicology report on Melvin Hill, “intimating that the results showed that Mr. Hill had alcohol in his blood.”
No Alcohol in Decedent’s Blood
Judge Bratton added: “This example of Ford’s willful disregard of the Court’s orders in limine was particularly troubling, because the toxicology report showed that alcohol was not present in Mr. Hill’s blood.”
The judge also ordered Ford to pay more than $10,000 in jury-related costs, and he required Mr. Thomas to show why he should not be held in contempt of court. The order did, however, reserve ruling on plaintiffs’ motion for attorney fees.
170 Ford F-250 Rollover Cases
One of the Hills’ attorney in the case said that he has never seen anything like Ford’s courtroom misconduct in his 41 years of trying some 200 cases.
Shortly after the mistrial, Ford unsuccessfully requested that Judge Bratton recuse himself from the case, while the Hills’ plaintiffs sought sanctions.
The Hills attorney said in an email to Courtroom View Network: “There was no doubt that the rollover was ‘foreseeable.’ Ford admitted that, and also admitted it had been sued some 170 times when this same truck rolled over causing roof crush and deaths or injuries. (There) was no doubt that the roof on these trucks is defective and dangerous. Ford’s own conduct admits that. Ford had a team of Ford engineers design a far stronger roof for this same truck back in 2004, because Ford knew this roof was too weak.”
Judge Sanctions Ford in Rollover Case
Ford promised to challenge the decision. “Unfortunately, this is the latest in a string of orders that defy the evidence and the record in this case,” Ford’s statement read. “Ford will pursue appellate review.”
The case is Hill v. Ford, 16-C-04179-S2.
Ford has faced several lawsuits over weak roofs in its F-250 and F-150 pickup trucks. The lawsuits typically charge that the weight of the frame and body in the Ford pickups is too much for the roof to bear in a rollover crash. Roof crush results, and many people have been killed or maimed in such accidents.