Lawrenceville, GA—A mistrial Friday in a suit against Ford by the family of a Georgia couple killed in a truck rollover was the result of defense tactics the family’s attorney said had been employed throughout the trial. Hill. V. Ford Motor Co. 16-C-04179.-S2.
“Ford was trying, tried for all three weeks to get a mistrial,” Butler Wooten Peak's Jim Butler told CVN Friday. “And [the company's attorneys] kept violating the court’s orders. And finally it just went way over the line.”
The comments follow Gwinnett County State Court Judge Shawn Bratton’s declaration of a mistrial in a case against Ford Motor Co. for the rollover crash-related deaths of Melvin and Voncile Hill in 2014.
The roof of the Hills’ 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 Crew Cab was crushed in the rollover, which occurred after a tire blowout on SR 49 in Americus, Georgia. The Hills’ children, Kim and Adam, contend Ford knew the roof’s design was too weak to withstand the vehicle’s weight, leading the roof to collapse and kill their parents. Ford argues the roof was sufficiently strong and the Hills died in a rare, extraordinarily severe rollover.
Friday morning’s mistrial declaration followed two weeks of testimony in the case, streamed live on CVN, and came a day after Judge Bratton sanctioned the defense for violating orders barring Dr. Thomas McNish from testifying about his opinion surrounding the Hills’ cause of death.
“Prior to Dr. McNish taking the stand, he and counsel were instructed that there were areas that the court found him not qualified to testify as to. There were specific instructions given to both defense counsel and to Dr. McNish as to what he would not testify to,” Judge Bratton explained to jurors when issuing the sanctions Thursday afternoon.
“The court finds… that order… was willfully violated. Therefore, you are to disregard the testimony of Dr. McNish in its entirety. Erase it from your memories. Any notes you took regarding his testimony… they will be destroyed. They are not to be considered by you.”
However, following Thursday's sanction, Butler moved for a mistrial, arguing the impermissible testimony by McNish was only the latest of several violations by Ford's attorneys and their witnesses.
“None of these violations can be cured,” Butler argued, according to a copy of the trial transcript. “The cumulative impact of them upon the plaintiffs is devastating. This jury has been poisoned.”
Meanwhile, Dentons’ J. Randolph Evans, representing Ford, argued McNish's medical experience rendered him qualified to testify about the Hills’ cause of death after the legal team had laid an appropriate foundation. However, Evans argued Judge Bratton’s sanction ultimately unfairly prejudiced the jury against Ford, and also moved for a mistrial.
“My order was clear,” Judge Bratton told attorneys, according to the transcript. “The Court does not find that he [McNish] has sufficient skill or expertise to provide that opinion as to the cause of death. Just because you think you got there, doesn’t mean you were entitled to go blow right through it, which is what happened.”
"Essentially [Evans] argued that Ford was entitled to violate the order because the order was wrong," Butler told CVN after the mistrial declaration. "Ford and its lawyers were totally unrepentant."
By Friday morning, Bratton decided to grant plaintiffs’ mistrial motion.
“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 after the mistrial. “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.”
Without a mistrial, Butler said the case likely would have ended in a compromised verdict, the result of Ford tactics Butler characterized as the “tackle box approach” to defense. “It’s like bass fishing, they throw all these lures in the water, hoping to hook somebody on one,” Butler said.
“They fire all this stuff, trying to catch one juror with one thing and another juror with another thing, so in the jury room you get a compromised verdict. And that’s really where we were heading.”
Butler said post-trial discussions with the jury led him to believe that at least one of the jurors had been swayed by the defense. However, the “vast majority of jurors were really strong in our camp,” Butler said, adding that one juror claimed he was determined to impose a $500 million punitive damage award.
In an emailed statement to CVN, Huie’s D. Alan Thomas, representing Ford, said he was unhappy the trial ended the way it did, and implied a different view of the jury’s mindset. “We are disappointed that the case ended in a mistrial,” Thomas said. “After talking to the jurors, we are even more disappointed.”
Butler said the Hills' children were also disappointed in the outcome. “The sad thing is that these roofs are killing people every year. And what Kim and Adam Hill wanted to do was get a big verdict so that people knew about the danger and hopefully save some lives,” Butler said. “A mistrial prevents that. Ford was trying to get a mistrial because they don’t want the bad publicity.”
CVN has contacted Ford and will update this story with further comments.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hill family's attorneys include Butler Wooten & Peak LLP's Jim Butler and Brandon Peak.
Ford's attorneys include Huie’s D. Alan Thomas, Dentons’ J. Randolph Evans, and Huff Powell Bailey’s Michael Boorman.
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