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Georgia Judge Sanctions Ford After Finding It Forced Mistrial in Wrongful Death Rollover Case

Posted by Arlin Crisco on Aug 1, 2018 12:35:51 PM

Testimony from Dr. Thomas McNish that Judge Shawn Bratton considered one of multiple "willful" violations of court orders, warranting sanctions against Ford in a suit over the deaths of a Georgia couple. 


Editor's Note 8/2/18: This article is updated with a statement from Ford. 

Lawrenceville, GA—A Gwinnett County State Court judge last month precluded Ford from challenging its underlying fault in a wrongful death rollover suit, as part of an array of sanctions for conduct that he concluded forced a mistrial in the case. Hill v. Ford, 16-C-04179-S2.

“Ford intentionally, and after several warnings and admonitions, elicited testimony that forced this Court to declare a mistrial,” Judge Shawn Bratton concluded in sanctioning Ford for conduct at trial over the 2014 truck crash deaths of Melvin and Voncile Hill. “Plainly, Ford willfully caused a mistrial in this case, in bad faith, and issue preclusion sanctions are appropriate.”

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The order, in response to plaintiffs' request for sanctions, bars Ford from challenging its liability as to design defect and failure to warn claims, and it sets up a trial focused on damages, including whether punitives are warranted in the case.  

The sanctions, earlier reported by the Daily Report, come three months after Bratton declared a mistrial in proceedings over the rollover, roof crush wreck that killed the Hills as they were driving along SR 49 in Americus, Georgia. During the April trial, covered gavel-to-gavel by CVN, the Hills’ family claimed a dangerously weak roof in the couple’s 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 Crew Cab pickup truck fatally injured them in a rollover following a tire blowout.

In issuing the sanctions, 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.

“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,” Bratton wrote. “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.”

Bratton also noted Ford’s legal team violated earlier orders barring them from questioning the Hills’ seatbelt use or arguing any fault on the Hills’ part. 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,” Bratton stated.

“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,” Bratton added.

Bratton further ordered Ford to pay more than $10,000 in jury-related costs and required Thomas to show why he should not be held in contempt of court. However, the order reserved ruling on plaintiffs’ motion for attorney fees.

The decision is the latest chapter in a case that has become increasingly contentious. After the mistrial, the Hills’ attorney, Butler Wooten & Peak's Jim Butler, told CVN he believed Ford intentionally tried to scuttle the case. “I’ve been practicing law 41 years and have tried close to 200 cases.... I’ve never seen anything like this, or even remotely like this," Butler said in April. “Such willful violations of so many court orders to try to get in evidence that is irrelevant and inadmissible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Shortly after the mistrial, Ford unsuccessfully requested Bratton recuse himself from the case, while Butler and the Hills sought sanctions.

After the most recent order, Butler told CVN many of the sanctions only settled what he said other evidence proved. “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,” Butler said in an email. “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.” 

In a statement to CVN, 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," the statement read. "Ford will pursue appellate review.”

Email Arlin Crisco at acrisco@cvn.com

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Topics: Hill v. Ford Motor Co., Georgia, Products Liability