South Carolina Supreme Court Overturns $31 Million Jury Verdict Against Ford Motor Company

The South Carolina Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of Ford Motor Company in its appeal of a 2006 lawsuit resulting from a rollover accident involving its Bronco II SUV.

The state’s highest court found that a judge overseeing the original case, which resulted in a $31 million jury award against Ford, allowed the plaintiff’s attorney to use inadmissible evidence. That evidence was used to convince the jury that the automaker was aware of design defects that made the Bronco II susceptible to roll-overs.

The decision also stated that information about Ford executive’s pay should not have been admitted into evidence when the jury set punitive damages in the original case.

In its August 16 ruling, the South Carolina Supreme Court stated, “The admission of this evidence was error and highly prejudicial.”

In the decision, Justice John W. Kittredge stated that evidence of rollover problems with vehicles that postdated the manufacture date of the Bronco involved in the accident should not have been allowed under South Carolina law.

Finally, Justice Kittredge claimed that Branham’s attorneys appealed to “the passion and prejudice of the jury” when arguing for punitive damages.

The original 2006 case was brought by the parents of Jesse Branham III who suffered brain injuries when the 1987 Bronco II he was riding in rolled over on a county road. The lawsuit alleged the accident occurred because of the vehicle’s inherently unstable design. Branham was 17-years-old when the jury returned its verdict awarding $16 million in actual damages and $15 million in punitive damages.

According to the appellate court’s ruling, no one in the vehicle, including Branham, was wearing a safety belt at the time the accident occurred.

The 2006 case was one of a dozen verdicts against Ford in cases involving vehicle roll-over accidents over a two-year period. In total, juries awarded plaintiffs in those cases $568 million. Branham’s jury award was one of the largest against an automaker according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Attorney Ronnie Crosby, who represents the Branham family, said her client was disappointed with the decision by the state’s appellate court. “We believe there is ample evidence to demonstrate the Bronco II is defective and unreasonably dangerous and we’re eager to present that evidence to another jury,” she said during a telephone interview last Thursday.

In the 2006 case, Branham’s attorneys introduced internal documents obtained from the automaker that showed there was concern about the Bronco II’s suspension system. Ford executives were also called to testify.

Last March the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned an $18 million jury award in another case alleging sudden acceleration of a Ford Explorer. In that case the high court found that the lower court judge had erroneously permitted expert testimony about similar problems in Explorers other than the one involved in the incident.

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