Brumfield v. Ford Motor Company
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 and Quincy T. Crochet of McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch, LLC, and by Michael W. Eady of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, LLP.