(Post updated on Jan. 30 to reflect confirmation that Munoz was a passenger.)
Here’s a case that could almost serve as a “spot-the-issues” model question for a law-school exam on the need for litigation reform. Rose Marie Munoz wasn’t wearing her seatbelt in 2002 when the spare tire on the 1992 Mazda Navajo (a rebadged Ford Explorer) failed and driver Derek Saenz rolled over the SUV; the other three occupants of the vehicle were uninjured. Munoz was ejected and temporarily paralyzed, has lost use of her right hand, and now walks with a limp. A Nueces County, Texas jury held Ford 75% (and Mazda another 10%) responsible for $29 million in damages, on the grounds that Ford should have done more to warn consumers about the dangers of ten-year-old tires—even though the tires in question were the notorious Bridgestone/Firestone tires that had actually been recalled in 2000, but had been left on the SUV. Jurors said they were influenced by the fact that Ford has since added a warning in their owners’ manual about replacing tires more than six years old. Firestone settled the case, allowing the plaintiffs to focus blame on Ford at trial. Ford blames the accident on driver error, and will appeal. (Sean M. Wood, “Ford hit with big judgment in Nueces”, San Antonio Express-News, Jan. 28; Karen Lundegaard, “Texas Jury Slaps Ford With $29 Million Verdict”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 27; AP, Jan. 27; plaintiffs’ lawyer press release).
Sample model answer to the spot-the-issues question after the jump. No press story mentions all of these factors, and many went unmentioned entirely.
(Update, Feb. 16: Plaintiffs’ attorney Roger Brough has an extensive discussion in the comments, to which I respond in detail. With one minor detail after the jump, I stand by my description of the case. It’s hard to follow the back-and-forth in the comments, but there is a post that combines his comments and my responses in direct point-counterpoint.)
1. Failure to wear seatbelt cause of the injuries, but not allowed to be considered as negligence, much less as an absolute bar to recovery. The jury didn’t even learn that the seatbelt wasn’t worn.
2 & 3. Apparently the jury believed that a second recall notice would’ve gotten the car-owner to replace her tires when the first one didn’t, once again demonstrating the absolute omission of “causation” as a concept in modern tort litigation, as well as the intellectual bankruptcy of the “failure to warn” cause of action.
4. Who says that the tort system doesn’t punish safety innovation? Ford’s new safety manual was used against it.
5. Needless to say, the $29 million award is absurd.
6. Plaintiffs allowed to propound multiple theories of causation as necessary to extract
double recovery from multiple defendants without consequence at trial, when jury never hears that the plaintiffs used to claim that the third-party settling defendant was responsible.
7. 20/20 hindsight: plaintiff makes bogus cost-benefit claim that a “$142 fix” would’ve prevented the accident without mentioning the fact that implementing all conceivable “$142 fixes” add up to a vehicle at least twice as expensive.
8. Locally-elected judge deciding case between local plaintiff and out-of-state defendant in judicial hellhole.
9. Any others? Discuss in the comments.
(Update, Feb. 16: Texas law permits non-settling defendants to reduce their judgment by the payment by settling defendants, so the mention of “double” recovery in ¶ 6 above was incorrect. I stand by my description of the case in the other particulars.)