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Court Determines if Courts Prior Jury Verdict was Proper

A Probate Lawyer said that the four motions made by all of the parties to set aside the jury verdict of March 22, 2008 and to enter judgments as a matter of law pursuant to CPLR §4404(a) are denied in part and granted in part.

This case arose from a July 1, 2000 motor vehicle accident where a 1998 Ford Explorer, a sport utility vehicle (“SUV”) rolled over, three and three quarter times resulting in two deaths and serious injuries to three other passengers. The vehicle was manufactured and designed by the defendant, Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor Credit Co. was the owner and lessor of the SUV. The driver and lessee, SM, died in the accident. The front seat passenger, G, was SM’s son. He sustained physical and serious emotional injuries as a result of the accident. Two of the rear seated passengers were SM’s grandsons, who were also G’s sons: B, who died one day after the accident, and E, who survived with physical and extreme emotional distress as a result of the accident. The third rear seated passenger, S, sustained serious physical, head and psychiatric injuries and settled with Ford Motor Credit Company on June 19, 2007, prior to trial for the amount of $1,750,000. S discontinued his products liability actions against Ford Motor Company.

An Estate Lawyer said that after three weeks of testimony, the jury found that the roof support system of the 1998 Ford Explorer SUV was defectively designed and found Ford liable in strict liability and negligent design, both of which were substantial factors in causing the driver, SM’s death. The jury found that the acceleration cable of the speed control system was not defective. The jury found that the two children, E and B, were not wearing their seatbelts and therefore concluded that the rear seat belts were not defectively designed causing them to unlatch upon a sustained impact, as plaintiffs demonstrated.

Brooklyn Probate Lawyers said the jury found that G, S, EV and the Estate of BM were not entitled to any compensation. However, the jury awarded EN $5,000,000 for the total amount of economic loss for the death of her husband, SM. The jury also awarded the Estate of SM $1,500,000 for the loss of earnings.

In considering a party’s post-trial motion to set aside the verdict, the court must consider whether the jury verdict is contrary to the weight of the credible evidence. Whether a jury verdict should be set aside as contrary to the weight of the evidence does not involve a question of law, but rather requires a discretionary balancing of many factors. In seeking the motion, the movant has the heavy burden of establishing that there was no rational basis on which a jury could have found for the non-moving party, the non-moving party being entitled to every inference, which could reasonably be drawn from the evidence submitted by them.

A Bronx Probate Lawyer said the first claims that this court should grant their motion to set aside the jury verdict because plaintiffs failed to make out a prima facie case on the strict products liability claim involving the design of the vehicle’s roof.

Here, this court finds that plaintiffs did make a prima facie case of strict liability. Plaintiffs’ expert testified that the 1998 Ford Explorer was not reasonably safe to protect occupants in foreseeable rollover collisions because the Explorer’s roof would deform inward on the driver’s side in a passenger side leading roll over. Furthermore, defendant’s own expert testified that the likelihood that an occupant of a 1998 Explorer would sustain fatal injuries in the subject roll-over accident was 100%, regardless of whether the roof was deformed. This testimony presents a basis for the jury to conclude that occupants in the vehicle were almost certain to have injuries and that the injuries would be severe or fatal.

Second, Ford claims that plaintiffs failed to make a prima facie case for negligence because no evidence was presented about Ford’s decision to put the vehicle into the market. For a case in negligence rather than strict products liability, the focus is on whether the manufacturer was aware of that condition and chose to market the product anyway. Here, Plaintiff’s expert testified that he had reviewed Ford’s documents pertaining to the design of the Explorer from 1992 to 1998. He explained that the Explorer had undergone three design changes during this period and the 1998 Explorer was known as the third generation Explorer. Based on the numbers in Ford’s documents, he explained that the 1998 Explorer’s roof was weaker than the second generation, which was weaker than the first generation. Ford’s documents also revealed that a steel beam was removed from the 1998 Explorer, which allowed the jury to conclude that Ford was aware of other available designs and was negligent in the design choices made for the 1998 Explorer and that this negligence lead to the death of SM. Therefore, this court concludes that plaintiffs’ did make out a prima facie case under the negligent design theory.

Third, Ford claims that plaintiffs failed to present a prima facie case under the “second collision doctrine.” Under the second collision doctrine, a plaintiff must prove that the injuries were more severe than they would have been had the product been properly designed. New York establishes a three prong test requiring plaintiff to sustain his or her claim: (1) that the design in question was defective and that an alternative safer design was practicable under the circumstances; (2) what injuries, if any, would have resulted had the alternative, safer design been used; and (3) establishing, through some viable method, the extent of enhanced injuries attributable to the defective design.

This court does not find the testimony of defendant defeats plaintiffs’ prima facie case under the second collision doctrine. As discussed previously, plaintiffs’ expert testified that SM would not have suffered fatal injuries if the roof had not been deformed. In acknowledging that it is possible that a driver can still suffer fatal head injuries without any roof deformation does not diminish the plaintiffs’ case that SM would not have suffered a fatal injury, but for the roof deformation. Accordingly, plaintiffs did present a prima facie case and have satisfied the “second collision doctrine.”

Fourth, Ford claims that they are entitled to a new trial on the issue of the vehicle’s roof structure because the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, and because the court allowed highly prejudicial evidence to be admitted along with the jury’s inconsistent finding with regard to the driver’s lack of culpability.

As to the issue of whether the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, Ford makes the same arguments discussed and rejected above claiming plaintiffs had not made their prima facie case. As to Ford’s claim that this court made highly prejudicial evidentiary rulings, Ford claims that the court should not have allowed plaintiffs’ expert to testify. Dr. C (Plaintiff’s Expert) is a biomechanical engineer and accident reconstructionist. He is the Principle Consulting Scientist and Biomedical Engineer of XXX Scientific, LLC in Tallahassee, Florida, specializing in the analysis of accidents. After hearing Ford’s arguments, this court, in an order dated February 25, 2008, allowed Dr. C to testify about body movement within the vehicle and the observations as to the performance of the vehicle with reference to passenger safety. When Dr. C testified regarding the Explorer’s roof structure, this was not in contravention of the court’s own earlier rulings as Ford argues. Rather, this court exercised its reasonable discretion as a trial court and found his testimony to be within the ambit of his expertise and notice to the defendants.
Ford’s last argument is that the $5,000,000 damages awarded to EN, the widow of SM, was excessive, as was the jury award of $1,500,000 in loss of earnings to the Estate of SM. Ford claims that the $1,500,000 awarded to the Estate was excessive in light of testimony of plaintiffs’ economic expert who only estimated a loss of earnings of $1,327,000, resulting in a difference of $173,000. Since there was no other evidence to support the jury’s verdict of $1,500,000, it is speculative. Accordingly, the award of $1,500,000 for loss earnings to the Estate of SM will be reduced by $173,000 to $1,327,000.

As to Ford’s argument that the $5,000,000 awarded to the widow, EN, was duplicative, this court finds that the amount should only be reduced by $1,327,000, the amount of the loss of earnings to the Estate of SM. The Court of Appeals held in Gonzalez v New York City Housing Authority that “pecuniary injuries” caused by a wage earner’s death may be calculated, in part, from factors relevant to the decedent’s earning potential, such as present and future earnings, potential for advancement and probability of means to support heirs, as well as factors pertaining to the decedent’s age, character and condition, and the circumstances of the distributees.

However, this court finds that the amount should be reduced by $1,327,000 to reflect the loss of wages awarded to the Estate of SM wherein EN was the sole heir. Hence, the award to the Estate would be duplicative. Accordingly, the amount awarded to EN will be reduced by $1,327,000 to $3,673,000 and the Estate of SM will be reduced to $1,327,000.

After much consideration and deliberation the Court made the following rulings.

Ford Motor Company’s motion to set aside the verdict, is granted, in part; that the damages to the Estate of SM be reduced from $1,500,000 to $1,327,000; and it is further ORDERED, that the damages to EN be reduced from $ 5,000,000 to $3,673,000.

Plaintiffs motion to set aside the verdict is granted, in part, as to G finding that he is entitled to an award of $529,027 for future prescriptions and medications and $2,160,028 for future psychiatric care over 43.86 years, and $250,000 for past pain and suffering for extreme emotional distress and $250,000 for future pain and suffering for future extreme emotional distress for 43.86 years; and it is further ORDERED, that S is entitled to an award for loss of services of G in the amount of $150,000; and it is further ORDERED, that EV is entitled to an award of $1,558,440 for future prescriptions and medications and $3,149,500 for future psychiatric treatment expenses over 62.8 years and $250,000 for past pain and suffering for extreme emotional distress and $500,000 for future pain and suffering for extreme emotional distress for 62.8 years.

Ford Motor Credit Company’s motion to set aside the verdict, is denied, and it is further ORDERED, that the Richmond County Clerk shall enter money judgments in accordance with the above decision in favor of the following plaintiffs in the following amounts: EV an infant, in the sum of $5,457,940; G the sum of $3,189,055; S the sum of $150,000; Estate of SM, the sum of $3,673,000, and EN, the sum of 1,327,000 totaling $13,796,995 plus statutory interest as to each award and costs and disbursements as to each case.

The loss of a loved one brings deep grief to the whole family. Although we cannot bring their life back, the law has set some pecuniary and economic help in favor of the surviving relatives. Claims for damages for the death of a loved one due to the wrongful act or negligence of another person may require legal expertise and with the assistance of a good counsel, your claims will be at hand.

The Stephen Bilkis & Associates together with its Richmond County Estate Litigation Attorneys and Richmond County Estate Lawyers can help during this time of difficult situation. Give us a call for a free legal consultation.

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