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Calif. High Court Upholds Ford Case

Oct 24, 2002 | AP

The California Supreme Court on Wednesday let stand a $290 million verdict against the Ford Motor Co. over a deadly 1993 rollover accident involving a Ford Bronco.

The justices decided without comment not to review an appeal from the automaker, which in court papers called the verdict the nation's largest personal injury award ever affirmed by an appeals court.

The case involved a crash of a 1978 Bronco near Ceres, about 80 miles south of Sacramento, in which three members of the Romo family were killed and two others injured.

The verdict was meant to punish Ford for what an appeals court found was "despicable conduct." The Romo family's attorney, Joe Carcione, said Ford knew the Bronco "would crush flat as a pancake in a rollover."

"The legal system works," Carcione said. "It's finding a way to punish conduct that is outrageous and is criminal, and the only way to punish outrageous and criminal conduct of a huge, monolithic rich corporation is you have to hit them in the wallet."

Ford attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., echoing business interests that had urged the state's high court to overturn the verdict, said the justices missed an opportunity to rein in runaway verdicts.

"This is an extreme and unconstitutional award," Boutrous said. "We plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it."

The trial judge had ordered a new punitive damages trial, citing possible jury misconduct. But in June, the state Court of Appeal reinstated the verdict and said there was ample evidence of corporate wrongdoing regardless of allegations of jury misconduct.

"We think that it is obvious that putting on the market a motor vehicle with a known propensity to roll over and, while giving the vehicle the appearance of sturdiness, consciously deciding not to provide adequate crush protection to properly belted passengers constitutes despicable conduct," Justice Steven Vartabedian wrote for the appeals court, which ruled 3-0. "Such conduct could kill people."

The Bronco's roof was made partially of steel and fiberglass. As the vehicle rolled, the steel collapsed, killing Ramon Romo, the passenger in the front seat. The fiberglass also broke loose, striking and killing his wife, Salustia, and his child, Ramiro. All three were wearing seat belts. Two other children not wearing seat belts were thrown from the Bronco and injured.

In its appeal, Ford said one juror was influenced by a TV news show in which lawyers alleged the automaker would rather litigate cases than correct defects. Ford also charged that another juror, during deliberations, described to fellow panelists an "omen" in which she dreamed that her child, and fellow jurors' children, were killed by a Bronco.

The verdict could have a serious effect on Ford's bottom line. Chairman and chief executive William Clay Ford Jr. announced plans Monday to cut $1 billion in spending after reporting a third-quarter loss of $326 million.

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