BREAKING: Ford Settles $31M Seat Belt Design Suit, Avoiding Mistrial

Posted by David Siegel on Mar 30, 2015 3:51:00 PM

Batts

An attorney for Ford shows jurors a certification stating that the 1999 Ford Escort met all federal safety requirements during her closing argument. Click here to see video from the trial. Click here for a copy of the complaint.

Nashville, N.C. — Ford Motor Co. settled a $31 million product liability suit over the design of a seat belt on Monday in North Carolina state court, narrowly avoiding a mistrial after the jury claimed to be deadlocked following weeks of testimony about whether or not the belt caused a teenager’s paralysis.

The settlement announcement follows a dramatic series of events on Friday evening, when the jury initially seemed to clear Ford of any liability in the case, which stemmed from a rear-end collision that left plaintiff Che-Val Batts paralyzed despite other unrestrained passengers in the 1999 Ford Escort he was riding in suffering comparatively minor injuries.

The jury informed the court just before midnight on Friday that it had reached a verdict a few hours after closing arguments took place. The verdict stated the two-point lap belt Batts was wearing was not defective, and that the driver of the car who rear-ended the Escort, Alejandro Rios, was solely responsible for Batts’ injuries and should pay $750,000 in damages, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the proceedings. Batts' attorneys had asked for over $31 million in compensatory and punitive damages. 

However during jury polling, it became evident the verdict was not unanimous as required under North Carolina law, and deliberations resumed on Monday morning. Shortly before lunch the jurors claimed to be deadlocked 8-4, and Judge Thomas Lock directed them to continue deliberations.

The confidential settlement was announced in court a short time later.

Plaintiffs' attorney J. Kent Emison of Missouri-based Langdon & Emison told CVN he and his clients are "extremely pleased" with the resolution to the case but declined to comment on the specifics of the settlement. 

A Ford spokeswoman declined to comment on the terms of the deal beyond expressing sympathy for Batts and stating his injuries were caused by Rios’ actions. 

While the settlement was disclosed to the jury on Monday, it is unclear when the parties actually resolved the case. On Friday evening a Ford spokeswoman emailed CVN a statement six hours before the non-unanimous verdict was announced claiming the parties had reached a confidential settlement and waived all rights to an appeal.

The statement, which Ford later retracted, also included language indicating the jury had reached a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Ford later said they prepare media statements for multiple outcomes in a case, and that the wrong statement had been mistakenly released. The company did not respond to follow-up questions regarding whether or not a settlement had actually been reached when the retracted statement was issued on Friday.  

Batts’ attorneys claimed the rear-impact collision in 2010 caused him to “jacknife” over the belt and injure his spinal chord, and that Ford should have installed an allegedly safer three-point shoulder belt in the car.  

Ford's attorneys argued that lap belts were intentionally used because they are safer for small children, but Emison responded that Ford’s own promotional materials suggested that if a child was too small for a shoulder belt, that they be restrained in a booster seat instead of using a lap belt. He claimed Ford knew as far back as the 1960’s that two-point lap belts offer less protection than three-point shoulder belts.

Fords’ attorneys told the jury those arguments were irrelevant, because the Escort met all federal safety standards at the time and was not defective. They claimed Batts was not wearing the lap belt properly at the time of the collision, and that he had slouched forward in his seat, so the belt covered his stomach instead of resting on his hips like it was designed to.

During her closing argument, Ford’s attorney Sandra Giannone Ezell of Bowman and Brooke LLP kept an image displayed on a projection screen of a federal certification stating that the 1999 Ford Escort met all required safety standards. She told jurors that the federal law applied to the car “bumper to bumper” including the two-point lap belt in the rear seat. She argued that any injury from the belt wasn’t due to it being defective, but because it was not worn by Batts the way its designers intended.

“We are 100 percent sorry that this happened to him and zero percent responsible,” Ezell told the jury. “There is no question Che-val Batts was not seated upright with the belt on his hips at the time of this accident.”

During the trial jurors heard graphic testimony regarding Batts’ extensive injuries, and in one of the most emotionally charged moments of the proceedings, Rios, who does not speak English, broke down in tears on the witness stand upon learning for the first time that the accident resulted in Batts being paralyzed.

However Ezell repeatedly stressed to the jury that sympathy for the plaintiff must not guide their deliberations and forcefully argued that the only question that mattered was whether or not Ford complied with applicable safety standards when designing the 1999 Escort.

“Everyone who came in here said Ford followed the law,” Ezell told the jury.

The trial was recorded gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.

The plaintiffs are represented by J. Kent Emison of Langdon & Emison and by Hoyt Tessener and Megan West of Martin & Jones PLLC.

Ford is represented by Sandra Giannone Ezell and Nathan Colarusso of Bowman and Brooke LLP.

Rios is represented by attorney Kevin Lewis.

The case is Amos Tyndall, as Guardian Ad Litem for Che-Val Batts v. Ford Motor Co. and Alejandro Ortiz Rios, case number 11-CVS-86, in the General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division of Nash County.

David Siegel can be reached at dsiegel@cvn.com.

Previous coverage:

Paraplegic's $28M Suit Over Ford’s Seat Belt Design Goes To Trial

Related:

Click here to check out more product liability cases in CVN's one-of-a-kind online video archive. 

Topics: Products Liability, automotive

Jury Issues Failing Grade to College Student in Slip/Fall Suit Against Board of Regents

Posted by Steve Silver on Mar 27, 2015 12:45:00 PM


Atlanta—A Fulton County Superior Court jury issued a verdict against an Atlanta Metropolitan State College student who was injured when she slipped and fell in a puddle of water in a classroom building. Desiree Lee v. Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (2012CV225353).

According to her testimony at trial, Desiree Lee, an Atlanta Metropolitan student, was going to her English class on July 26, 2011. She had just exited an elevator in the classroom building when she slipped in a puddle of water, fell backwards, and hit her head on the floor. She reported that she did not see the puddle prior to the accident and had no idea how large it was. Lee was taken in an ambulance to Grady Hospital, and received medical treatment for her injury both in the emergency room and in subsequent months. Because Atlanta Metropolitan is a state university, she filed the current negligence suit against the Board of Regents.

Click Here FREE Georgia Trial Video Samples At the trial, Lee’s attorney Andrew Kiehle questioned several witnesses associated with the college in regard to the school’s safety and maintenance policies. Antonio Long, the campus police chief, testified that the college did not have a specific written safety policy regarding slip-and-fall incidents, and the school’s general policies regarding injury treatment pertained to police matters such as assaults or traffic accidents. He added that his office did not conduct any follow-up investigation in regard to Lee’s accident. Long acknowledged that the school had video cameras in the classroom building corridor, but the footage from the day of the accident was not saved because the college only saved footage that might be evidence in a criminal case, not a standard slip-and-fall incident.

Keith Williams, the Director of Plant Services at the college, testified that the school followed two industry standard custodial manuals in regard to maintenance procedures. According to Williams, custodians did not keep individual log books of their activities, but they were given work schedules to follow. However, the schedules were somewhat flexible because some rooms might be occupied at the time originally scheduled for cleaning. As a result, a custodian’s exact work route through the classroom building might change from day to day. He added that that custodians did not do any mopping during the day. During a typical day shift, there would be four custodial people responsible for all the activity on the 400,000 square foot campus.

Williams further testified that his office did not monitor the content of the video cameras in the classroom building. When asked how he knew if custodians were doing their job as scheduled, Williams replied that if any rooms were not cleaned as scheduled, people would notify his office and complain.

After Lee rested her case, Assistant Attorney General Ron Boyter, representing the Board of Regents, moved for a directed verdict on the ground that Lee had failed to demonstrate that the college had no policies and procedures in regard to inspecting the classroom building. In his view, the testimony “is very clear that there are policies in place … they’re told what to do, what procedures to go through. They follow industry standards. There’s a work order that tells them where they’re supposed to go… they follow up on it to make sure they’re doing their job. Nothing in the case law requires that to be written down.”

In Andrew Kiehle’s view, however, “there is no policy in place because there is no written policy in place… I don’t think a policy is a policy unless it’s in writing. Testimony from a witness is for a jury to decide… Testimony is testimony; a document is a document. There is no document, no policy showing what their policy is.”

Judge Tom Campbell reserved his ruling on the defense motion, and the defense proceeded with its case.

The primary defense witness was Janniece Perdue, the custodian on duty in the classroom building on the day of the accident Perdue testified that any time she would go through an area of a building, she was required to police the area to ensure there was no debris or any spills on the floor. At the time of the accident, she was cleaning a classroom down the hall from the spot where Lee fell. Perdue stated that she had passed through the area where Lee fell about approximately 15 minutes earlier before entering the classroom and beginning her cleaning.

Perdue said she received a call on the radio she carried, notifying her of the accident. She went into the hallway and saw Lee lying on the ground with several people around her. She noticed a puddle of water about three feet wide in the area. Perdue then took the elevator to another floor to get wet floor signs and a mop bucket and then returned to clean up the spill.

After the trial, Andrew Kiehle told Courtroom View Network that, in his view, the key to the jury’s eventual decision was probably Janniece Perdue’s testimony that she had been in the area of the puddle approximately 15 minutes earlier. Representatives for the defense were unavailable for comment.


Related information:

Attorneys involved in the case include Andrew Kiehle of Kiehl Law Group of Atlanta for Desiree Lee and Jared Campbell and Ron Boyter of the Attorney General's Office for the Board of Regents.

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Topics: Premises Liability, Negligence, Georgia, Lee v. Board of Regents

$2M Verdict But No Punitives in Retrial of Engle Cancer Suit Against RJR and Philip Morris

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Mar 26, 2015 4:40:06 PM

Gore

Robert McCarter delivers closings in Robert Gore's suit against R.J. Reynolds and McCarter's client, Philip Morris. Gore claims the tobacco makers' concealment of the smoking's health hazards led to his wife's artery disease and, eventually, her fatal cancer. Watch gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial here.


Vero Beach, FL—Jurors today awarded $2 million in a Florida man’s suit against tobacco manufacturers R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris for the artery disease and cancer that he says killed his wife, a smoker for more than 40 years.   

Watch Video from Tobacco Trials Jurors deliberated a day-and-a-half before reaching their verdict, which apportioned 54% of responsibility to Gloria Gore, the smoker at the case's heart, and 23% each to R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. Gore’s widower, Robert Gore, sought $7.5 million in the Engle progeny suit, claiming that the tobacco companies hid the dangers of smoking for decades, which caused his wife’s nicotine addiction, her carotid stenosis, and eventual fatal lung cancer.

In reaching its decision, the jury found that Gloria Gore's addiction to cigarettes for more than four decades led to both her carotid stenosis and lung cancer. Although it awarded $2 million in compensatories to Robert Gore, it refused to find liability for punitives. 

The suit is one of thousands of similar Engle progeny lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in Florida. The cases arise from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco case originally filed in 1994. Although that court ruled Engle cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking. To rely on those findings, individual Engle progeny plaintiffs such as Gore must prove the smoker’s addiction to cigarettes and a causal link between the addiction and a smoking-related disease that manifested itself by November 21, 1996.

Doctors diagnosed Gloria Gore with carotid stenosis, an artery disease, in 1992. She ultimately died of lung cancer in 2000. However, because her carotid stenosis was the only disease to have “manifested” itself prior to the November 21, 1996 cutoff date for Engle class action membership, the link between that disease and her smoking served as a central point of dispute in the trial.  

During closing arguments Tuesday, Shook Hardy’s Robert McCarter, representing Philip Morris, told jurors that Gloria Gore’s genetics, and not her smoking, led to her artery disease. “What you see is that her mother, a non-smoker, had (artery disease); her sister, a non-smoker, had it. She had two uncles, we don’t know their smoking status, but they both had it. And, Mrs. Gore had carotid artery disease,” McCarter said. “Cigarette smoking has nothing to do with it. It runs in your family whether you’re a smoker or not.”

Robert Gore’s attorneys countered that medical testimony proved Gloria Gore’s artery disease was linked to her smoking. During closings, Foote, Mielke, Chavez & O’Neil’s Robert Foote reminded jurors that Gloria Gore’s treating physician, Dr. W. Clark Beckett, a vascular surgeon, testified that he believed Gore’s carotid stenosis would not have occurred absent her smoking. “This whole family history thing is a complete red herring," Foote said. "Because what you heard from the doctors who talked about it was that there is no question (that) what caused... her carotid artery disease was the smoking. The 4 or 5 million hits (from cigarettes) that she took over her life."

Beyond the potential link between Gloria Gore’s smoking history and her carotid stenosis, attorneys sparred over whether she had been addicted to cigarettes, a fundamental requirement to succeed in an Engle progeny action. Arguing that testimony showed Gloria Gore tried to quit smoking, at most, only once in more than 40 years, McCarter told jurors “Without evidence that Mrs. Gore ever made a sincere attempt to quit smoking, how could anybody say that she was addicted?”

However, Foote reminded jurors that three physicians, including Beckett and addiction expert Dr. David Burns, testified that they believed Gloria Gore was addicted to cigarettes. “We have three medical opinions, and no opinion otherwise,” Foote said. “This is not ‘the greater weight of the evidence.’ This is 100% of these people believe… that she was addicted to nicotine contained in defendants’ cigarettes.”

The week-and-a-half long trial, with Judge Cynthia Cox, presiding, was the second in less than a year for the suit. In August 2014, Judge Cox declared a mistrial in the case when jurors awarded no compensatory damages to Gore but still found defendants liable for potential punitive damages.  

Attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment. 


Additional information

Attorneys in the case include Foote, Mielke, Chavez & O’Neil’s Robert Foote and Stark & Stark's Stephen Corr representing Robert Gore. Shook Hardy's Robert McCarter represents Philip Morris and Jones Day's Stephen Geise represents R.J. Reynolds. 

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Topics: tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Gore v. R.J. Reynolds

Tobacco Makers Hit with $3M Punitive Verdict in Widow's Wrongful Death Suit

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Mar 25, 2015 11:56:00 AM

Rose Pollari's attorney, Alex Alvarez, asks jurors for $30 million in total punitive damages against Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Jurors ultimately awarded $3 million total punitives against the tobacco companies in Pollari's suit for the lung cancer death of her husband, Paul. Click here to watch on-demand gavel-to-gavel video of the trial. 


Fort Lauderdale, FL--Jurors today awarded $3 million in punitive damages to a widow who claimed her husband died of lung cancer in 1994 after decades of smoking cigarettes made by Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Pollari v. R.J. Reynolds, et al.

Watch Video from Tobacco Trials The punitive award came on the heels of Monday’s $10 million compensatory award to Rose Pollari, who sued the two tobacco manufacturers, claiming that her husband Paul Pollari’s nicotine addiction and eventual lung cancer were caused by the tobacco industry’s concealment of smoking’s health hazards and marketing to children for most of the 20th century.

However, during the trial’s one-day punitive damages phase, the defendants argued that they no longer engaged in the tactics that have exposed them to billions of dollars in liability in thousands of trials similar to Pollari’s.

In closing arguments of the punitive phase, Shook Hardy’s Kenneth Reilly, representing Philip Morris, reminded jurors of testimony concerning federal restrictions imposed on tobacco companies since the 1990s and argued that wholesale changes in corporate leadership mitigated against awarding punitive damages. "What message do you send to the people at Philip Morris who are moving in this direction?" Reilly asked. "If there are other people or companies, or organizations that view themselves as being out of alignment, by your message do you encourage them to take this new path? Or do you encourage them to continue where they are because it's not going to do them a bit of good, they're just going to get smacked?"

However, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez, representing Rose Pollari, told jurors that the defendants needed to be punished for the conduct he says led to Paul Pollari's nicotine addiction. Alvarez also argued that increased federal regulations on the tobacco industry have not prevented cigarettes from continuing to reach underage smokers today. “These FDA regulations have not prevented them from selling one cigarette,” Alvarez said. “Forty-two hundred children start smoking, or try their first cigarette, every day. It’s not by accident.”

The $3 million award, imposed equally between Philip Morris and Reynolds, is 1/10 of the $30 million in total punitives Alvarez requested in closing arguments, telling jurors “unless they feel like they were punished, then punitive damages did nothing.”

The jury took less than two hours to reach its punitive verdict, which concludes a two-week trial that focused in part on whether Pollari’s cancer originated in his lungs.

The case is one of thousands of similar Engle progeny lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in Florida. The cases all stem from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco case originally filed in 1994. Although that court ruled Engle cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking. To rely on those findings, individual Engle progeny plaintiffs such as Pollari must prove the smoker’s addiction to cigarettes and a causal link between the addiction and a smoking-related disease.

Attorneys were not immediately available for comment. 


Related information

Attorneys in the case include Kelley Uustal's Todd McPharlin and Eric Rosen, and The Alvarez Law Firm's Alex Alvarez, representing Rose Pollari.  Shook Hardy's Kenneth Reilly represents Phillip Morris USA and King & Spalding's Ursula Henninger represents R.J. Reynolds. 

Read $10M Verdict, Plus Punitives to Come Strikes Tobacco Giants in Wrongful Death Suit.

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Topics: tobacco, Engle Progeny, Florida, Pollari v. R.J. Reynolds,

High Speed Tandem Driving Collision Trial Begins in Clayton County

Posted by Steve Silver on Mar 24, 2015 7:19:00 PM

Price031615Screenshot

Plaintiff's attorney Terry Jackson questions a witness during the James Price v. Raju Thapa et al. tria in Clayton County State Court. Price was severely injured in a 2008 motor vehicle accident in rural Spalding County.


Jonesboro, GA—Testimony began today in Clayton County State Court in an automobile negligence case in which a man injured in an accident sued the drivers of two other vehicles under a joint enterprise theory, even though one of the vehicles was not involved in the accident at all. James Price v. Raju Thapa et al. (2010CV06741).

According to statements at trial and other documents in the case, the accident occurred on September 25, 2008, at the intersection of Johnny Cut and Jackson Roads in rural Spalding County. At approximately 11:00 a.m., a van driven by Vijay Shah on Johnny Cut Road ran a stop sign at a substantial rate of speed and collided with James Price’s vehicle, which was traveling on Jackson Road. Although Price applied his brakes, he was also moving at a considerable speed when the accident occurred.

Click Here FREE Georgia Trial Video Samples Shah’s van overturned in the road, while Price’s van ran off the road and through a fence before coming to a stop in a field over 150 feet away. Shah died as a result of injuries received in the accident. Among the injuries Price allegedly suffered in the accident were a fractured skull, a torn rotator cuff, permanent tinnitus in the ears, and an aggravation of a preexisting knee injury that may require a knee replacement.

At the time Shah approached the intersection, Raju Thapa was driving his car about 20 to 30 feet behind Shah’s van. Thapa and Shah were headed to a nearby convenience store at the time of the accident. After the collision, Thapa was able to safely stop his car and was not involved in the actual accident. He remained on the scene until a Georgia State Patrol vehicle arrived and then gave his statement to the trooper.

Price filed the current lawsuit against Shah’s estate, Thapa, and Thapa & Brothers, Inc., Thapa’s company. The Georgia Court of Appeals allowed the suit against Thapa to proceed to trial under a theory of “tandem driving”; Price v. Thapa, 323 Georgia App. 628 (2013). That theory “requires that the participants be jointly engaged in driving their respective vehicles in a negligent manner, in close proximity with one another, while traveling to a common destination.”  

Prior to the trial, both Price and Thapa gave multiple sworn statements that contained inconsistencies and contradictions. Price has alleged that Thapa and Shah were both driving at a speed of about 60 to 70 miles per hour at the time of the accident, in excess of the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, and that Shah made no attempt to stop his van. Price also believes that Thapa ran the stop sign as well. Thapa has denied running the stop sign, and, in addition, stated that he and Shah were only driving at a speed of about 40 to 45 mph when the accident occurred.

The parties also dispute the nature of the relationship between Thapa and Shah at the time of the accident. In his opening statement, Price’s attorney Terry Jackson suggested that Thapa and Shah were in business together servicing ATM machines and were headed to the convenience store as part of that business. Both Thapa’s attorney, Evan Mermelstein, and Thapa & Brothers’ attorney, Darrel Sutton, denied any such relationship existed. They contended that Thapa and Shah were merely friends. Shah became aware that the convenience store might be for sale and suggested that Thapa take a look at the store. Because Thapa was unfamiliar with the area, he was following Shah’s van to the store at the time of the collision.

The trial is expected to continue for the remainder of the week.

 

Related information:

Attorneys involved in the case includeTerry Jackson of Atlanta for James Price, Evan Mermelstein of Apharetta for Raju Thapa, Darrell Sutton of the Sutton Law Group of Marietta for Thapa & Brothers, Inc., and William Amos of Sharon Ware and Associates of Atlanta for the estate of Vijay Shah.

Watch on-demand video of the trial as soon as it becomes available. 

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Topics: Negligence, Georgia, Price v. Thapa

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