Lawrenceville, GA— Ford Motor Co. was hit with a $1.7 billion punitive verdict Friday at trial over a rollover crash that killed a Georgia couple. Hill v. Ford Motor Co., 16-C-04179.
Friday’s verdict, potentially the largest personal injury award in Georgia history, caps a 12-day trial over the 2014 deaths of Melvin and Voncile Hill. And it comes one day after Gwinnett County State Court jurors handed down a $24 million compensatory award for the couple's death, found Ford 70% responsible for the incident, and determined punitives were warranted against the auto giant.
The Hills were killed when a tire on their 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 Crew Cab pickup truck separated on SR 49 in Americus, Georgia, causing it to roll over and crush the vehicle's roof.
The Hill family claimed a dangerously weak roof in the vehicle led to the couple's death in the rollover after the tire separation. The tire that separated had been manufactured by Cooper Tires and installed by auto servicer Pep Boys. While originally named as defendants, neither Pep Boys nor Cooper were parties at trial, though jurors Wednesday apportioned 30% of fault for the accident to Pep Boys.
Trial in the case against Ford was largely focused on damages, after a 2018 mistrial led to sanctions against the auto company, including findings in favor of the Hill family on their defective design and failure to warn claims. However, because punitives remained in play, Ford’s design decisions remained a key point of contention at trial.
Ford argued that the Hills’ rollover was a severe, outlier crash and that the roof at issue protected against the vast majority of rollover crashes that typically occur.
To Watch the Trial NOW
& Take 25% Off Your New Video Library Subscription
During Wednesday’s closings in the trial’s first phase, Huie, Fernambucq & Stewart’s Paul Malek pointed to years of design and safety studies that showed that the company’s roofs sufficiently protected their occupants. He added those studies also concluded that the alternative safety measures Ford chose to invest in, rather than stronger roofs, would better protect vehicle occupants.
“[The answer to improving safety is] not in putting more metal in a roof. It’s not in spending about $100 to put more metal in a roof,” Malek said. “The answer comes from investing in accident avoidance technologies and occupant protection.”
However, the Hill family's attorneys countered that Ford was aware of roof crush dangers for years but refused to strengthen their roofs in order to save on costs.
On Wednesday, Mahaffey Pickens Tucker’s Gerald Davidson, Jr. reminded jurors of dozens of similar rollover incidents that led to death or severe injury. He said Ford engineers had designed a much stronger roof, but that the company delayed putting that design into its vehicles for years. And he added that Ford had failed to issue warnings about the roof used in the Hills truck.
“There are millions of trucks still out there, with these same roofs, with occupants in them like Mr. and Mrs. Hill,” Davidson said. “But Ford sits there and does nothing.”
And during closings of Friday’s punitive proceedings, Butler Prather’s Jim Butler argued that Ford’s conduct, combined with its size, warranted harsh financial punishment.
“The point of punitive damages is to get them to quit denying responsibility, quit evading accountability, and to fix the problem,” Butler told jurors. “And warn people that, if you’re riding around in one of these trucks with this roof, you better not roll over because if you do, you’re dead, paralyzed, or severely injured.”
By contrast, Ford’s attorney, Troutman Pepper’s William Withrow, Jr. urged a roughly $15.6 million punitive verdict was appropriate, based on numbers taken from Ford’s business in Georgia. “I submit to you that that’s a very reasonable number,” Withrow said, noting the amount was also roughly twice what jurors had awarded for the couple’s pain and suffering in the trial’s first phase.
In a press release issued after the verdict, Butler noted the award caps a winding case that took years to reach a jury. “The Hill family is thankful to the jury for their verdict, and thankful to get this phase of the litigation over with, finally.” Butler said in the release.
CVN has reached out to attorneys for Ford and will update this article with their comments.
Not a subscriber?