South Carolina’s highest court has overturned an $18 million verdict against Ford Motor Co. in a fatal crash, ruling that one expert shouldn’t have been allowed to testify about cruise control problems.
Sonya Watson, 17, was paralyzed after losing control of her Ford Explorer in December 1999. Watson’s SUV veered off the left side of Interstate 385 in Laurens County, rolling four times.
One of her passengers, Patricia Carter, was killed. Both women were ejected from the SUV, a 1995 model.
Attorneys for Watson and Carter’s estate sued Ford, arguing during a 2006 trial that the Explorer “took off” after Watson set the cruise control. Watson’s father, who testified that the Explorer had also accelerated suddenly two other times while he was driving it, said repair technicians had told him the SUV’s new floor mats caused the acceleration problem and needed to be turned over.
A Greenville County jury awarded Watson $15 million, allocating another $3 million for Carter’s estate. But in the opinion published Monday, Chief Justice Jean Toal overturned that award, writing that a trial judge shouldn’t have allowed testimony from an expert about cruise control problems in Ford Explorers, or examples of other acceleration problems.
Electrical engineer Antony Anderson testified at trial that electromagnetic radiation had interfered with the cruise control system and caused Watson’s sudden acceleration. But Anderson didn’t know enough about Ford Explorers or their systems to testify as an expert, Toal wrote.
“He had no experience in the automobile industry, never studied a cruise control system, and never designed any component of a cruise control system,” Toal wrote, adding that Anderson said he had never even operated a vehicle with a cruise control system or published any articles on the subject.
Citing other cases in which appeals courts have excluded expert testimony on cruise control malfunctions in Ford vehicles, the court also found that the trial judge should not have allowed testimony about similar acceleration problems that involved vehicles of different models made in different years.
Attorneys on both sides of the case did not immediately return phone calls. A spokesman for Ford Motor Co. said the manufacturer is satisfied with the court’s ruling.
“Our sympathy goes out to the Carter and Watson families,” said Deep. “We feel that the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision speaks for itself on the matter of whether there was reliable evidence of any defect in the vehicle that caused the accident.”
The appellate court’s decision comes as another automaker struggles with reports of high-speed accelerations. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week said it cannot explain a reported incident of sudden acceleration in a Toyota Prius on a San Diego freeway and acknowledged it may not be able to solve the mystery of what happened to the hybrid.
NHTSA is looking into claims from more than 60 Toyota owners that their vehicles continue to unexpectedly accelerate despite having their vehicles repaired. Toyota has recalled millions of cars because of floor mats that can snag gas pedals or accelerators that can sometimes stick.
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