Ford gets $31M verdict overturned

Kyla Asbury Aug. 24, 2010, 12:12pm


COLUMBIA, S.C. (Legal Newsline) - The Supreme Court of South Carolina sided with Ford Motor Company in its appeal of a $31 million jury award on Aug. 16.

The suit involved Cheryl Jane Hale and Ford Motor Company as defendants and Jesse Branham III as the plaintiff. Branham suffered brain damage when the 1987 Ford Bronco he was riding in rolled over.

The state's high court ruled that the so-called risk-utility test is the only type of test that may be used in design defect claims.

The test requires plaintiffs to "point to a design flaw in the product and show how his alternative design would have prevented the product from being unreasonably dangerous," Justice John W. Kittredge wrote.

"This presentation of an alternative design must include consideration of the costs, safety and functionality associated with the alternative design."

On June 17, 2001, Hale was driving her 1987 Ford Bronco along Cromwell Road in Colleton County. Hale's daughter was in the front passenger seat and Branham was riding in the backseat, according to the suit, and no one was wearing a seat belt.

According to Hale, she was not speeding. Hale admittedly took her eyes off the road and turned to the backseat to ask the children to quiet down.

When she took her eyes off the road, the Bronco veered towards the shoulder of the road, and the rear right wheel left the roadway.

Hale overcorrected to the left and the vehicle rolled over. Branham was thrown from the vehicle and was injured.

Branham's father sued Ford and Hale, alleging Ford was negligent for a handling and stability design defect claim related to the vehicle's tendency to rollover.

A Hampton County jury awarded Branham $16 million in actual damages and $15 million in punitive damages and found that Ford was 55 percent responsible, while Hale was 45 percent responsible.

Ford appealed, and the high court granted a new trial on liability and damages.

The justices found that Ford did not get a fair trial because the Branham's closing argument included inadmissible information and was aimed at inflaming the passions of the jurors.

Ford is being represented by Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP and Turner Padgett Graham & Laney PA. Branham is being represented by Hetrick Harvin & Bonds and Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth & Detrick PA.

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