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Automobile Products Liability Matter

Recently, a jury in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana returned a defense verdict for an automobile manufacturer rejecting plaintiff’s claim that a manufacturing defect in a vehicle’s steering system caused the fatal crash that gave rise to the lawsuit. Keith W. McDaniel and Quincy T. Crochet of McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch, LLC represented the automobile manufacturer.

The single vehicle crash occurred in the median of westbound I-10 in south Louisiana. As the vehicle traveled in the inside lane of travel, it moved to the right into the outside lane of travel forcing a motorist to move onto the shoulder to avoid a collision with it. The driver of the vehicle then moved to the left and drove off the left side of the interstate at a high rate of speed. After leaving the roadway, the vehicle struck a tree head-on, triggering the Event Data Recorder (“EDR”) and deployment of the airbags. That impact also redirected the vehicle so that it became airborne and crashed into another tree while rolling passenger side leading. First responders observed no signs of life, and the coroner pronounced the driver dead at the scene.

Plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert testified that EDR data indicated that the vehicle’s driver attempted right steer inputs while the vehicle continued its leftward travel motion. According to him, these right steer inputs should have changed the vehicle’s path of travel, allowing the driver to avoid the tree impact. Experts for the defense countered this testimony with evidence demonstrating that because of the speed of travel and the severity of leftward steering input, the vehicle lacked sufficient time and distance on an appropriate friction surface to correct its path of travel prior to striking the tree line. Additionally, based upon physical evidence found at the scene and on the remaining components of the vehicle, the experts demonstrated that the broken components plaintiff claimed evidenced a manufacturing defect, in fact, evidenced damage caused from the accident.

Plaintiff, the only surviving child of the driver sought more than $1.2 million dollars. The jury of 8 unanimously rejected her request and rendered a defense verdict in favor of the defense.

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Cassidy v. Ford Motor Company

Lance Williams defeated certification in a class action against Ford Motor Company.  Plaintiff attempted to convene a statewide class claiming defects in 2011-2015 Ford Explorers, which allegedly permitted exhaust fumes and other gases into the passenger compartment during operation of the vehicle.  After months of litigation, on May 25, 2016, United States District Judge Kurt Engelhardt granted Ford’s Motion to Strike Plaintiffs’ Class Action Allegations and denied Plaintiffs’ Motion to Certify Class.

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Bordelon v. Ford Motor Company

Bordelon v. Ford Motor Company
(January 2016)

On Friday, January 22, 2016, a jury in Orleans Parish, Louisiana returned a verdict for Ford Motor Company following a two-week trial, rejecting plaintiff’s claim that his 2005 Ford Focus contained a defective seat. Instead, the jury placed all fault for the accident on the adverse driver who rear-ended the plaintiff’s vehicle.

The lawsuit arose from a two-vehicle accident that occurred on February 5, 2011, at approximately 2:00 a.m. in New Orleans. Michael Bordelon, a co-owner of a local restaurant, closed the restaurant for the evening and traveled in his Focus toward his home.  While Bordelon was stopped at a controlled intersection, Willie O’Connor, driving a Toyota Tundra rear-ended him.  As a result of the high-speed crash, Bordelon sustained a severe traumatic brain injury, leaving him permanently disabled.

Bordelon subsequently filed suit against Willie O’Conner and Ford Motor Company. As against O’Conner, Bordelon alleged that O’Conner negligently rear-ended him. O’Conner testified at trial that he had no recollection of the crash because just before the collision he had suffered a “flashback” to his days in Vietnam.  He also testified that he was not intoxicated despite his having pleaded guilty to DWI (Fourth Offense) and First Degree Vehicular Negligent Injuring.

As against Ford, Bordelon claimed the driver’s seat in the 2005 Ford Focus was unreasonably dangerous because of a defect in design. Bordelon’s seat expert, Michael Markushewski, M.E.T., of ARCCA, argued the seat back strength was inadequate. Bordelon’s biomechanical expert, Brian Benda, Ph.D., also of ARCCA, testified that had Ford utilized a stronger seat Bordelon would have walked away from the crash without any significant injury. In reaching that conclusion, Benda relied upon an accident reconstruction performed by Sean Harrington, B.S. in Engineering Science and Mechanics and also from ARCCA, who testified that the Tundra was traveling only 36-44 mph at the time of the collision.

Ford disputed plaintiff’s accident reconstruction by calling Tom Perl, Ph.D., P.E., of Collision Safety Engineering, L.C., who testified that the Tundra traveled 50-60 mph at the moment of impact. That speed resulted in the Focus experiencing a Delta-V of 40 mph. Ford also called a statistician, Jeya Padmanaban, M.S., of JP Research, Inc., who explained that the subject crash was more severe than 97.7% of all rear-end accidents. Additionally, she performed an analysis of hundreds of thousands of crashes and testified that seatback strength is not a statistical predictor of injury outcome.

Ford also presented testimony from Roger Burnett, M.S., a Ford engineer. Mr. Burnett explained the design process for the seat and the extensive testing Ford undertook during its development. Finally, Ford called a biomechanical expert and seat design expert, David Viano, Dr. med., Ph.D., of ProBiomechanics LLC, who testified that the subject seat design performs very well in rear-end crashes. In rebutting plaintiff’s claim that Ford should have utilized a more rigid seat, Dr. Viano introduced testing that demonstrated that the use of the more rigid alternative seat design proposed by plaintiff actually increased the risk of injury to occupants in various crash scenarios experienced much more often than the subject crash scenario and offered no injury reduction benefit even in the serious accident scenario experienced by Bordelon.

Turning to damages, plaintiff presented the testimony of a psychiatrist, Richard Richoux, MD, and a neuropsychologist, Kevin Bianchini, Ph.D., as the basis for a life care plan prepared by Larry Stokes, Ph.D. That plan included extensive attendant care for Bordelon, and plaintiff’s economist, Kenneth Boudreaux, Ph.D., calculated the value of the plan at $3.3 to $4M.  In response, Ford called a psychiatrist, John Thompson, M.D., who disputed the extent of the life care plan presented by plaintiff.  Ford’s expert in life care plans, Elizabeth Bauer, M.Ed., CLCP, presented a plan in line with Dr. Thompson’s recommendations, and John Theriot, CPA, calculated the present value of Ford’s life care plan at $200,000 – $310,000.

During closing arguments, plaintiff’s counsel discounted Willie O’Conner’s role in causing Bordelon’s injuries and argued that the jury should cast Ford with the majority of the fault apportionment.  O’Conner’s counsel argued similarly suggesting that O’Conner’s fault played no role in the cause of Bordelon’s disabling injuries.  On the issue of damages, plaintiff’s counsel suggested a general damages award from $5M to $20M. He also asked the jury to award past medicals of approximately $450,000 and future medicals of up to $4M. After deliberating for approximately four hours, the jury returned an 11-to-1 verdict and found that the Ford Focus was not defective, thereby releasing Ford from any liability. As for Willie O’Conner, the jury found him 100% at fault. The jury then assessed Bordelon’s damages against O’Conner, and it awarded $441,000.00 in past medical expenses, $300,000.00 in future medical expenses, and $500,000.00 in general damages, for a total award of $1.24M.

Ford’s trial team consisted of Keith W. McDaniel and Quincy T. Crochet of McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch, LLC, Mark Boyle of Donohue, Brown, Mathewson & Smyth LLC, and Michael W. Eady of Thompson Coe.

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Brumfield v. Ford Motor Company

Brumfield v. Ford Motor Company
(June 2015)

On Saturday, June 6, 2015, a jury in Clinton, Louisiana returned a defense verdict for Ford Motor Company following a nearly 2 week long trial in an airbag non–deployment case involving fatal injuries.  In reaching the verdict, the jury rejected plaintiff’s allegation that Ford defectively designed the supplemental restraint system in a 1995 Ford Mustang.

The lawsuit arose out of a series of events on March 1, 2008 that culminated in a two-car collision between a 2006 Nissan Altima operated by Dana Shell and a 1995 Ford Mustang operated by Robert Brumfield and occupied by his two minor children. Shell, a registered nurse, worked the night shift in the psychiatric ward at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, and her shift ended the morning of March 1st.  According to co-workers, Shell exhibited odd behavior indicative of impairment, and she made numerous nonsensical and illegible chart entries in patients’ records. Testimony also revealed that a psychiatrist at the hospital mistook Shell for a patient that morning, and a psychiatric nurse at the facility asked a supervisor to prevent Shell from driving away from the hospital. Nevertheless, the hospital excused Shell from her next shift, and she left the hospital that afternoon in her automobile.

Shortly after leaving, Shell rear-ended a pickup truck at highway speed while still in Baton Rouge. She did not stop, and the operator of the truck, who happened to be a retired Baton Rouge police officer, gave chase. He called 911, and while on the phone with the operator, he observed Shell commit a second hit-and-run on another vehicle. Shell traveled into the city limits of Baker, Louisiana, where two separate Baker officers spotted her vehicle, activated their lights and sirens and attempted to stop Shell. However, Shell continued and ran at least one red light before pulling over approximately 1.3 miles after the Baker units began their pursuit.  Baton Rouge police officers soon arrived on the scene to handle the initial hit-and-run offense, and Shell completed a written statement.  In the statement, she identified her location as Baton Rouge General Hospital and wrote that she just hit an alligator in the road.  Officers from both departments issued various citations to Shell, but none performed a field sobriety test.  After learning that the officers planned to release Shell, the retired officer and hit-and-run victim asked for a head start so that he would not be on the roadway at the same time as Shell.

Shell then left Baker and continued to operate her vehicle in an erratic fashion, forcing at least one other vehicle off the roadway and into a ditch. Just moments later, Shell attempted to pass a row of vehicles traveling northbound on Highway 19 near Slaughter, Louisiana. While attempting this maneuver, Shell traveled northbound in the southbound lane of travel and caused an off-set head-on collision with the Brumfields’ 1995 Ford Mustang. Both vehicles traveled at approximately 50 mph at the time of the crash.  As a result of the impact, Robert Brumfield died immediately at the scene, and his two children suffered relatively minor injuries. Dana Shell sustained extensive trauma resulting in approximately 40 surgical operations.

Robert Brumfield’s surviving spouse, Sunday Brumfield, subsequently filed suit on behalf of herself and her minor children against Dana Shell, Baton Rouge General Medical Center, the City of Baker, the City of Baton Rouge and Ford Motor Company. As against Ford, plaintiff contended that the wire routing from the driver side airbag sensor was defective. Plaintiff’s design expert, Michael Nranian of Automotive Design Analysis in South Lyon, Michigan, opined that the wire routing rendered the system susceptible to severing during a crash event.

Ford contended that the non-deployment was caused not by faulty wire routing, but due to a disconnected airbag diagnostic monitor. Ford’s design expert, Michael Klima of Design Research Engineering in Novi, Michigan, testified that he found the supplemental restraint system’s diagnostic monitor unplugged during an inspection, and as a result the system had been disabled.  Additionally, he testified that the separated wire in the engine compartment of the vehicle was pulled apart as a result of tensile loading that developed during the accident long after the front sensors would have closed and sent a signal to deploy the airbags. Ford’s accident reconstruction expert, Dr. Geoffrey Germane of Germane Engineering in Provo, Utah, also presented evidence that the diagnostic monitor and nearby wiring components moved several inches rearward during the crash in concert with each other, thereby rebutting a suggestion from plaintiff that crush intrusion and relative motion of the components caused the disconnection of diagnostic monitor. Further, Dr. Germane and Mr. Klima testified that any movement of the diagnostic monitor during the crash occurred long after the front sensors signaled for deployment. Finally, Ford’s biomechanical expert, Dr. Thomas McNish of Biodynamic Research Corporation in San Antonio, Texas, testified that Robert Brumfield died as a result of a head strike to the A-pillar, and that Mr. Brumfield would have suffered the same fatal injury even with airbag deployment.

During closing arguments, plaintiff’s counsel requested a verdict totaling approximately $8,300,000.  After deliberating for approximately 3 hours, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Ford and awarded nothing to plaintiff. Ford was represented at trial by Keith W. McDaniel, Quincy T. Crochet and Joshua Dierker of  McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch, LLC, and by Michael W. Eady of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, LLP.

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Morvant v. Ford Motor Company

Morvant v. Ford Motor Company
(Febuary 2015)

On Friday, February 6, 2015, a jury in Lake Charles, Louisiana returned a defense verdict for Ford Motor Company following a two week trial in a post-collision fire case, rejecting Plaintiffs’ allegation that the brake master cylinder and reservoir assembly in decedent William Morvant’s 2002 Ford F-150 was defectively designed.

The action arose out of a single vehicle collision in January 2008, when Mr. Morvant drove off the road and into a ditch after drinking at two local bars. His vehicle slammed head-on into a concrete culvert in the ditch, causing its rear end to catapult up over the front end before the vehicle came to rest on its passenger side.   A small fire began in the engine compartment and eventually progressed through the windshield and into the passenger cab. Though an eyewitness to the accident reported she observed no signs of life from Mr. Morvant when she approached the vehicle immediately after the wreck, Plaintiffs alleged that Mr. Morvant was trapped in the vehicle and “burned alive.”

Decedent’s medical records reflected ongoing treatment for alcoholism, and a post-mortem blood draw by the medical examiner’s office revealed he had a .3% BAC; however, the judge ruled that such evidence was inadmissible. The judge also excluded evidence that decedent was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the wreck.

Plaintiffs’ experts contended that the polymer brake fluid reservoir in decedent’s F150 was cracked or dislodged from the master cylinder in the collision allowing brake fluid to escape the reservoir and ignite on the exhaust manifold. Plaintiffs’ design engineer, James Mundo, opined that the reservoir was defective because it should have been constructed of metal and should also have been ensconced with a bathtub-like shield to collect any fluids that may leak from the reservoir during a collision.

Ford contended that the fire was caused not by brake fluid but rather due to the release of power steering fluid onto the exhaust manifold, which occurred when the power steering reservoir was smashed against the bulkhead of the vehicle due to the severity of the impact with the culvert. Plaintiffs made no claim regarding the design of the power steering reservoir.

Jack Ridenour, Ford’s design engineer and fire cause and origin expert, testified that the brake fluid reservoir was properly designed, and he ran crash testing that confirmed that it was crashworthy and would have survived the impact intact. Ford’s accident reconstructionist testified to the unique and severe nature of the wreck, explaining that frontal collisions followed by pitched rollovers such as occurred in this case represent only .004% of all collisions. Additionally, Ford’s pathologist and biomechanic both testified that Mr. Morvant could not have survived the initial impact and did not “burn alive.”

Plaintiffs sought a total of eleven million dollars – five million dollars in pain and suffering, and 1.5 million dollars each for Mr. Morvant’s surviving spouse and three adult children. Ford was represented at trial by Keith McDaniel and Lance Williams of McCranie Sistrunk Anzelmo Hardy McDaniel & Welch, LLC in Covington, Louisiana, and by Perry Miles and Lauren Wood of McGuireWoods, LLP in Richmond, Virginia.

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McNabb v. Ford Motor Company

McNabb v. Ford Motor Company
(March 2014)

Keith W. McDaniel and Quincy T. Crochet obtained summary judgment for Ford Motor Company in the 21st Judicial District Court for the Parish of Tangipahoa in two separate lawsuits filed by Hansford McNabb and his wife, Connie McNabb, as a result of a single vehicle accident that occurred on September 17, 2010.  According to plaintiffs, as Hansford McNabb was driving west on LA 10 in rural Tangipahoa Parish with his wife, Connie McNabb, riding as a front seat passenger, Hansford lost consciousness and their Ford F-250 veered off a curve and impacted a tree.  Connie McNabb sued her husband and alleged he was at fault for the accident.  However, Connie and Hansford also sued Ford and alleged that their injuries resulted from the non-deployment of the airbags in the F-250 due to an unspecified manufacturing defect.

Ford pushed plaintiffs for the details of their defect theory and the court ordered the production of liability expert reports, but the McNabbs failed to comply.  Ford then moved for summary judgment and argued that plaintiffs developed no proof of a defect and that they deprived Ford of the ability to inspect the vehicle because they failed to preserve it after the accident.  Plaintiffs suggested that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied, but Ford countered that under controlling law res ipsa was inapplicable because the case did not present “highly unusual” circumstances and plaintiffs could not exclude other reasonable causes for the non-deployment – namely that the accident simply did not present forces which surpassed the deployment threshold.  After hearing oral argument on the motion, the court agreed and dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against Ford, with prejudice.

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Franklin vs. Ford Motor Company and Jim Taylor Ford Lincoln Mercury, L.L.C.

Franklin vs. Ford Motor Company and Jim Taylor Ford Lincoln Mercury, L.L.C.
(January 2014)

Keith W. McDaniel and Quincy T. Crochet obtained a defense verdict for Ford Motor Company following a jury trial in Lincoln Parish, Louisiana in January 2014.  Plaintiffs, Vivian and James Franklin, brought suit as a result of an alleged inadvertent deployment of the seat-mounted driver’s side airbag in a 2005 Lincoln LS. Vivian Franklin testified that as she was driving the airbag deployed.  She described the road on which she was travelling as “smooth as glass,” and she denied hitting any potholes or objects.  Although she brought the vehicle safely to a stop after the deployment event, Mrs. Franklin claimed that the deployment caused multiple cervical and lumbar disc injuries including bulges and an annular tear, headaches and chronic pain throughout her body, and difficulty with memory, vision and hearing.  Plaintiffs sued Ford and alleged that the side airbag system was defective in manufacture, design and due to inadequate warnings.

Ford defended the system, with data obtained from the diagnostic module of the Lincoln LS.  The module’s readout confirmed that multiple sensors within the system sensed necessary crash pulses and deployed the airbag.  Ford also presented evidence to demonstrate that elements of the system’s design were state-of-the-art at the time of manufacture, that the system conformed with the custom of the industry in design intent, that the vehicle complied with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and that the design properly balanced the risk of deployment in non-crash events with the need for deployment in severe side impact scenarios.  Ford also disputed Mrs. Franklin’s claim regarding the condition of the roadway through the use of DOTD records which documented widespread damage in the area of the incident.

To rebut damages and demonstrate the relatively low level of risk from a deployment in a non-crash environment, Ford presented the results of a static airbag deployment test in an exemplar Lincoln LS with an anthropomorphic test device (i.e., a “test dummy”) instrumented with various sensors.  The video of the airbag deployment established that the deploying bag moves away from a properly positioned driver.  Additionally, sensors in the dummy’s cervical and lumbar spine areas confirmed that forces acting on the dummy were inconsequential and less than the forces experienced through loading the spine during many activities of daily living.  Based on these test results, Ford argued that the subject airbag deployment did not cause Mrs. Franklin’s disc injuries and that the deployment was not the source of her ongoing complaints.  Instead, Ford contended that Mrs. Franklin’s disc injuries long pre-dated the airbag incident and that her past medical records document longstanding complaints of the same type she claimed started after the airbag deployment.

The jury found that plaintiffs failed to establish a product defect under any of the theories advanced pursuant to the Louisiana Products Liability Act.

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Reynolds v. Nissan

Reynolds v. Nissan
(August 2013)

Keith W. McDaniel and Quincy T. Crochet obtained summary judgment in favor of Nissan North America, Inc., in a lawsuit filed by Richard Reynolds in the 22nd Judicial District Court for the Parish of St. Tammany.  The case arose out of a five car accident which occurred on Louisiana Hwy. 22 in Mandeville, Louisiana, in March 2008.  After initially sideswiping a Honda Accord, the intoxicated operator of a Chevrolet Suburban collided with the rear left side of the plaintiff’s 2003 Infiniti G35.  The impact caused the G35 to collide with another car before coming to a rest off the roadway in a ditch.  Meanwhile, the driver of the Suburban continued and collided with several other vehicles.

Mr. Reynolds, who sustained personal injuries in the accident, later filed suit against his insurance carrier, an automobile auction company, Nissan and the operator of the Suburban.  As against Nissan, Reynolds alleged that his injuries were caused by unspecified defects in the vehicle’s supplemental restraint system.  To support his claim, Reynolds retained an expert, Dr. Claude R. Mount.  However, Nissan successfully moved to exclude Dr. Mount from trial on the basis that Dr. Mount lacks the experience to testify as an expert in supplemental restraint system performance.

Nissan subsequently moved for summary judgment.  Nissan argued that Reynolds lacked expert support for his defect claims.  Further, despite years of litigation Reynolds failed to develop or present any proof of a manufacturing defect, a design defect, a warnings defect or a warranty defect pursuant to the Louisiana Products Liability Act.  The trial court agreed and granted Nissan’s motion, dismissing it from the suit in August 2013.

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Jack B. Harper Contractor, Inc. v. United Fiberglass of America, Inc.

Jack B. Harper Contractor, Inc. v. United Fiberglass of America, Inc.
(February 2013)

Keith W. McDaniel, Quincy T. Crochet and Heather Nagel Shockley of McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy McDaniel & Welch LLC obtained a favorable result for Prime Conduit, Inc. (“PCI”) following a nearly three-week jury trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  Jack B. Harper Contractor, Inc. (“Harper”) filed the lawsuit against United Fiberglass of America, Inc. (“UFA”) and PCI and alleged defects in a multi-cell conduit system referred to as Multi-Gard.  Prior to suit, Harper entered a contract with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development for the installation of digital messaging signs, cameras and radar, along with underground and structure-mounted conduit to house the power cable and fiber optic cable which serviced and powered the equipment.  Harper purchased and installed Multi-Gard for use on elevated portions of Interstates 310 and 10 near New Orleans, Louisiana.  UFA and PCI each manufactured certain components of the conduit system, which Harper argued was defective and caused delayed completion of the project.  The case proceeded to trial before a jury with Judge Jane Triche-Milazzo presiding.  PCI defended Harper’s claims, rejecting the notion that the conduit was defective and arguing instead that any issues encountered by Harper were due to faulty installation techniques.  In closing, counsel for Harper asked the jury to cast PCI with 70% fault and UFA with 20% fault, and to award damages totaling almost five million dollars.  However, the jury rejected Harper’s request and determined instead that PCI was only 12% at fault.  The jury placed the majority of the fault on Harper at 53%, with the remaining 35% fault assessed against UFA.  The jury also determined that Harper’s damages totaled less than two million dollars.  After applying the fault percentages fixed by the jury, the Court entered Judgment in Harper’s favor against PCI for $229,883.52, a figure which represents less than 5% of the amount requested by Harper during closing arguments.

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Michael R. Duncan v. Ford Motor Company

Michael R. Duncan v. Ford Motor Company
(June 2011)

Plaintiff sued Ford Motor company, alleging the failure of his vehicle’s airbag to deploy in an accident caused his injuries. Keith McDaniel successfully obtained summary judgment in the trial court. On June 10, 2011, the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment, providing written reasons.

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