An appeals court in San Francisco threw out a decision that would have given $52 million to the parents of a toddler killed by a rolling pickup truck, and asked for a new jury to set punitive damages in the case.
This is the second retrial setting punitive damages in this case, which stems from the death of three-year-old Walter White in October 1994.
Walter’s father, Jimmie White, had parked his Ford pickup on his sloped driveway and walked into his home. Walter was playing in the front yard with his mother, Ginny White, checking on him occasionally, according to the unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
At some point, the child climbed into the truck’s cab and shifted the gears into neutral. The parking brake didn’t hold the pickup in place and it started rolling back. The child fell or climbed out and was crushed by the truck, according to court documents.
The Whites sued Ford Motor Co. and the Orscheln Company, maker of the brakes, alleging the companies were aware the brakes would allow the truck to roll but had not warned consumers. Ford issued a recall in connection to the brakes two months after Walter White’s death.
Orscheln settled the case and, in the 1998 trial, Ford was found negligent for not warning customers about the brakes. Even though the Whites also were found partly responsible for the accident, the jury awarded them $2.3 million in compensatory damages, meant to cover expenses, and $150.8 million in punitive damages, meant to punish Ford.
The district court later found the punitive damages excessive, and reduced the amount to $69.2 million. But both parties appealed, and the case was sent for a new trial.
In the 2004 retrial, meant only to reset the amount of punitive damages, another jury awarded the Whites $52 million. Ford again appealed, asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse it because of mistakes made instructing jurors, among other reasons.
Before the appeals court ruled, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that determined that juries, when deciding punitive damages, should not be allowed to consider harm done to people not directly involved in the case. Because the Whites’ attorneys had told jurors that Ford knew that 54 people had been injured by “rollaways,” the appeals panel Thursday threw out the previous decision, and asked for another retrial, again limited to setting punitive damages.
The new jury should also be told that the Whites already got $2.3 million in compensatory damages, and that the Whites were found to be partly responsible for the accident, the panel said.
“Two unanimous juries and all seven judges who have ruled on this case over the past decade have ruled that Ford must be punished for its conduct,” said Shanin Specter, who argued the case for the Whites. “It is regrettable that this punishment has been delayed all these years.”
Ford’s lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.
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