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SUVs' Popularity Likely To Mean More Suits

Jul 17, 2000 | USA Today

Many rollover-related lawsuits have been filed during the past decade, and the number is expected to increase dramatically as the popularity of sport-utility vehicles rises, lawyers and consumer safety advocates say.

The highest-profile case, Ford Motor vs. Ammerman, reached the Supreme Court in March. The high court refused to hear an appeal from Ford to reduce a lower court's $13.8 million damage award to the victims of a Bronco II rollover in Indiana in 1991.

The victims, Pamela and Lana Ammerman, were ejected from the 1986 Bronco after it collided with another vehicle, swerved to avoid a guardrail and rolled over. Among other injuries, Pamela suffered permanent brain damage, and Lana suffered severe leg and facial injuries.

The Ammermans' lawsuit alleged that the Bronco II had a defective design that made the vehicle prone to tip over. "The center of gravity was too high for the width of the track, and the vehicle's weight distribution was poor," says Scott Montross, one of the victims' lawyers.

Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel says the company is "disappointed in the ruling because the damages are totally unwarranted." The Bronco II, which is no longer manufactured, is safe and well built, she says.

"It is well-engineered and meets all federal standards for crashworthiness," Krusel says. "The accident was unfortunate and resulted from a driver losing control of the vehicle. Any similar vehicle would have acted the same way."

Ford says it has won about three-quarters of the 16 rollover-related cases involving the Bronco II that have gone to trial. Other cases, she says, have been settled out of court.

A week before the Supreme Court's decision, a California jury awarded at least $25.9 million to Richard Raimondi, a driver whose Bronco II rolled over on a highway in 1996. He is now a quadriplegic and uses a ventilator to breathe.

The jury said that Raimondi, the vehicle's only occupant, and his wife suffered about $52 million in damages but awarded them half that amount because he was 50% responsible.

Ford says it plans to appeal the verdict.

"Unfortunately, some juries unrealistically believe SUVs should have the same rollover resistance as passenger cars, although it's not possible from an engineering perspective," Ford's Krusel says. "SUVs are still extremely safe vehicles when they're driven responsibly."

Other rollover-related legal cases are underway throughout the country.

In Worcester, Mass., for example, a case brought by the father of Maura Howard, a 19-year-old Springfield College student who was killed six years ago in a 1993 Isuzu Rodeo, has been scheduled for retrial in January. The original trial recently resulted in a hung jury.

The Rodeo was struck by a car and rolled over, killing Howard, who was in a front seat wearing a seat belt. Two unbelted occupants of the Rodeo were ejected from the vehicle and survived.

"A well-designed vehicle would slide not roll over," says Michael Weisman, the plaintiff's lawyer. "And once it starts to roll over, the roof shouldn't crush."

Richard Campbell, Isuzu's lead trial lawyer, says, "The design of the Rodeo is reasonably safe in relation to on-road stability."

The accident occurred because the vehicle that struck the Rodeo was being operated at or above 100 mph by a drunken driver, he says.

In New Mexico, a judge has set a December trial date in a case involving two sisters who were killed after the 1997 Honda Passport they were riding in went off Interstate 25 and rolled end over end several times.

The lawsuit alleges that the Passport has a design defect that creates an unreasonably dangerous propensity for loss of control and rollover under normal operating conditions.

Honda did not comment.

Weisman and consumer advocate Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, agree that more rollover-related lawsuits are inevitable as SUV sales grow.

SUVs are "the emperor's new car," Weisman says.

"There will be a wave of lawsuits in the future," Ditlow says.

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