Last month, a judge in Central Florida took the drastic step of overturning
a jury verdict in a case against Ford Motor Company. Ford had won the
trial, but the judge found that Ford committed fraud throughout the trial
which misled the jury and tainted the verdict.
The case involved a husband and wife who sued Ford after the wife was paralyzed in a
car accident. They claimed the accident was caused by a sudden acceleration of their
Ford minivan caused by a design defect in the minivan’s cruise control.
Ford, on the other hand, claimed the cruise control system was perfectly
safe, and that the accident must have been caused by driver error. After
a four-week trial, the jury found in Ford’s favor.
That would normally have been the end of the dispute. Trial judges recognize
that jurors get to decide the facts and generally don’t second-guess
their decisions. This case was the exception. In a remarkable and thoroughly
documented decision, the judge set out multiple and calculated acts of
fraud committed by Ford. Among the judge’s findings:
1) Ford was warned that electromagnetic interference could cause cruise
control to malfunction by one of its own engineers in the mid-70s. Ford
ignored those warnings and did not take available steps to protect against the risk.
2) During trial, Ford argued that a government-funded study supported its
claim that sudden acceleration was not caused by any design defect. The
study did indeed reach that conclusion – but only because Ford had
misled the study’s authors as well. The judge found Ford withheld
internal reports and studies to basically dupe them into reaching a faulty
3) Ford instituted a policy of destroying sudden acceleration reports on
its vehicles after one year, even though government regulations require
documents concerning vehicle safety to be kept for five years. Purging
of those reports prevented relevant information about sudden acceleration
cases from being discovered.
4) Ford claimed laboratory tests showed the electronic components involved
in cruise control did not fail. However, those tests were done only when
the electronic components were taken out of the vehicles. This isolated
the components from the other systems in the car which could cause electromagnetic
interference in the first place. Therefore, while Ford’s statement was
technically accurate, it was completely misleading because the lab tests failed to
simulate actual driving conditions.
5) In a supreme irony, Ford’s lawyers insinuated during the trial
that the lawyers for the husband and wife had concealed test results from
Ford. The judge found this personal attack was unjustified and “sullied
the entire proceedings.”
The judge’s decision shines a light on what lawyers have known for
years: corporate defendants sometimes hide evidence and behave badly.
The temptation to conceal evidence is particularly great in product defect
cases, where a company could face an expensive recall if their product
is found faulty. We hope the judge’s scathing decision deters large
corporations from engaging in fraud and concealment in future cases.
The case is
Stimpson v. Ford Motor Company. The judge was William Swigert, and his decision is dated July 20, 2011.