Betty Potter, who weighed 230 pounds, was driving her Ford Escort in the rain on bald tires, lost control of her car, and collided backwards into a tree at 30 mph. Her seatback collapsed in the impact, rendering her paraplegic when her head hit the back seat. She was allowed to argue to a jury that the design was “defective” even though her lawyers could not identify an alternative design that would have prevented the harm; Ford was held 70% liable for $10 million in damages. The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the state trial court verdict. Of course, it’s impossible to design seatbacks to handle all conceivable combinations of collision direction and driver sizes; as the plaintiffs’ expert admitted, using a rigid seatback instead of a yielding seatback to withstand this sort of collision makes other types of injuries much more likely, and low-speed collisions where the yielding seatback has benefits are far more likely than high-speed collisions. The jury (and Tennessee court) is essentially punishing Ford for failing to have perfect foresight in matching its cars with the accidents the cars’ drivers will have. (Potter v. Ford Motor Co.; concurring opinion; via Products Liability Prof. Blog).
In other rigid v. yielding seatback lawsuit news, the Illinois Court of Appeals released on the web the Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co. opinion for the case we discussed Dec. 1, 2006 and March 21, 2005. The same issues apply in that case, except there, the accident was caused by a drunk driver plowing into the back of a stopped car at over 60 mph.