Posts Tagged ‘autos’

SUV suits follow-up

Some follow-up observations about the Ford Bronco $31 million verdict post.

1. South Carolina is one of the few states that has the pure form of the doctrine of “joint and several liability”, under which any deep-pocket defendant is 100% liable even if they’re only found 1% at fault. Thirty-seven states have enacted some limits on this, but South Carolina has not. Such a legal system creates incentives to find the deepest pocket and attach a shred of fault to them so that they are held entirely responsible for the consequences of others.

2. I’ve read several plaintiffs’ briefs arguing for upholding similar verdicts, as well as submissions made to NHTSA arguing that certain vehicles are “too prone” to roll over. They essentially come down to requests to ban SUVs: every SUV faces accusations of being “too prone to roll over.”

SUVs are designed to have high clearance to traverse rugged terrain. This raises the center of gravity and affects the handling: it’s a known tradeoff of the laws of physics. There are a wide variety of tests of varying degrees of scientific merit one can use to suggest a vehicle is “too prone” to roll over, and plaintiffs have the benefit of cherry-picking which tests to apply to which vehicles. You’ll find lots of lawyers complaining that the Bronco II allegedly responded poorly in “J-turn tests”, where the steering wheel is turned 330 degrees in one third of a second and held there for another 4.67 seconds. Ford designed the Explorer to pass the J-turn test to take away this claim, and the trial lawyers started using different methodologies to claim that the Explorer was too prone to roll over.

Empirically, however, the Bronco doesn’t roll over more than several other SUVs on the market, which is why NHTSA, in both the Bush I and Clinton administrations, refused to recall the Bronco when the plaintiffs’ bar asked it to. When I say Ford was held liable for producing an SUV, I’m not spinning: it was because it was held liable for producing an SUV.

Moreover, a vehicle should be viewed in totality: an auto that is more likely to roll over may be safer in other particulars that more than compensate for that increased propensity. So I question the premise. One can’t change the rollover propensity without creating a different vehicle entirely. The vehicle should be viewed holistically, and holistically, the Bronco is a safe car when used as designed.

Perhaps we as a society would be better off taking the nanny-state step of banning SUVs, forbidding people from wildnerness driving because too many drivers don’t know how to drive SUVs in highway conditions, but that’s a decision that not only would end the American auto industry, but should be made other than by a 12-person jury of laypeople. This vehicle rolled over because the driver drove off the road.

3. The ultimate cost is borne not by Ford, but by the rest of us: lawsuits like this add $500 to the price of every American car. You and I can’t go to the car manufacturer and get a cheaper car by promising not to be as stupid a driver as this one was. So careful drivers are subsidizing careless ones.

4. It’s unlikely that the $500 applies equally to expensive and cheap cars, but not in the manner you think: (1) the less expensive car is more likely to be driven longer and more often and with more carpooling passengers; (2) less likely to have expensive top-of-the-line safety features that haven’t yet become standard and thus more likely to be sued over the lack of those features; and (3) more likely to be sold in such a volume that trial lawyers have put together a cheap package targeting the vehicle for lawsuit in the hopes of achieving economies of scale by targeting a lot of potential plaintiffs. (There will never be a mass tort for a Rolls Royce, for example—not enough of them are sold.) Note that the plaintiffs’ bar puts profits before people: they look at the costs and benefits of bringing suit, and target the most profitable vehicles to sue over, rather than the most dangerous ones, which is why the Ford Pinto is notorious and the VW Beetle (whose designers were so inconsiderate to write their memos in German instead of cheap-to-analyze English), which killed people at a much higher rate, is remembered with fond nostalgia.

So average liability is, if anything, higher for cheap cars than expensive cars; the $500 figure (which comes directly from the president of Chrysler) is probably higher for cheap cars and lower for expensive cars, and perhaps close to zero for the Rolls.

Jesse Branham v. Ford: bad mom hurts kid, Ford blamed to tune of $31M

In May 2001, Cheryl Jane Hale was driving four children to a sleepover in her 1987 Ford Bronco. She didn’t bother to have the children wear their seat belts, so, when she took her eyes off the road to argue with the backseat passengers, and thus drove off the road and flipped the car, 12-year-old Jesse Branham was thrown from the car and suffered brain damage. A jury in Hampton County, South Carolina (the second jury to be impaneled—the first one was dismissed in a mistrial when it was discovered after two weeks of trial that five of the jurors were former clients of Branham’s lawyers) decided that this was only 45% Hale’s fault, held Ford 55% responsible, which puts Ford entirely on the hook for $31 million in damages. (It’s unclear how injured Branham is: the story mentions that he’s given up athletic dreams and has memory problems, and his father said he worries Branham can’t hold a job, but Branham also has “average grades” in his high school. So either Branham’s injuries aren’t that severe and have been exaggerated for trial, or the average high school student in Hampton County exhibits signs of brain damage, or “average” is a euphemism for “below average,” a la Lake Wobegon.) Ford will appeal. Cases brought against Ford by Hale and the other three passengers are still pending, so Ford’s bill for Hale’s carelessness is only going to go up. (Warren Wise, “Ford, injured youth’s family fight on”, Charleston Post & Courier, Dec. 8).

Hampton County was named a judicial hellhole in 2004 when South Carolina law permitted plaintiffs in the state to pick any county they wanted to bring suit, and taken off the list in 2005 when South Carolina fixed its venue rules, but, of course, Hampton County residents still get the friendly juries there. (Schuyler Kropf, “Hampton County juries have reputation”, Charleston Post & Courier, Dec. 8).

“Odometer Settlement May Earn Class Lawyers $9.5 Million in Fees”

It seems Honda odometers, until recently at least, were what you might call conservative — they registered a slightly higher mileage than actually driven, by perhaps 2 or 4 percent. Given that the best known consumer-protection hazard in the odometer world has long been the danger of unscrupulous tampering with the devices so as to underestimate mileage with an eye to resale, one way to interpret the Honda settings is that they effectively leaned over to protect buyers of used vehicles. However, class action lawyers did not interpret the phenomenon that way, instead hinting at a plot to 1) get owners to come in for scheduled service slightly more often than otherwise and 2) run out mileage-triggered warranties slightly faster than otherwise. Reader James Ingram, referring to the handsome fee haul, writes: “I’m sure I am happy to pay $9 1/2 million to know that my Honda odometer which reads 10,200 to 10,400 really should read 10,000. If I drive it, say, 150,000 miles it might cost me an additional $30 oil change.” (Mary Alice Robbins, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 13).

Woman hits truck, sues truck-trailer manufacturer, wins millions

Virginia Walker drove her Ford Taurus into the side of an 18-wheeler that had pulled in front of them on Highway 59, killing herself and severely injuring her front-seat passenger, Kelleigh Falcon. It’s not clear which driver was at fault, but the resulting trial brought by Walker’s relatives and Falcon focused on the deep pocket, Lufkin Industries, who dared to manufacture a truck trailer that complied with federal safety regulations. No matter: Lufkin should have anticipated that this particular truck would need sideguards that would protect the occupants of a Ford Taurus that hit it, though such sideguards would potentially make the truck geometrically mismatch and be more dangerous to still other vehicles on the road. (Press coverage does not indicate how fast the Taurus was travelling, and whether improved underride standards would actually have protected it.) Among the evidence introduced against Lufkin: they were a member of the Truck-Trailers Manufacturers Association, which, among other things, dared to speak with legislators about the financial impacts of proposed regulations; Lufkin waited until federal regulations specified underride protection standards before installing such protection, rather than taking its own initiative and discovering that the regulations asked for something else. A Texas state jury found them about 40% liable for $38.5 million in damages; press coverage doesn’t indicate who the other 60% applies to. (Jessica Savage, “Lufkin Industries plans to appeal jury’s decision in tractor-trailer accident case”, Lufkin Daily News, Nov. 21; Ramonica Jones, “Lufkin Industries Plans to Appeal $36 Million Verdict”, KTRE-TV, Nov. 22).

November 22 roundup

  • $15M to family of Oklahoma driver who flipped his car when taking a 30 mph curve at 67 mph and passing a car in a no-pass zone. [Point of Law]
  • “Jungle Democracy’s appeal is as unintelligible as its complaint and also states no grounds for relief.” [Jungle Democracy v. USA (10th Cir.) (McConnell, J.) via Bashman]
  • Reform coming to New York justice courts (POL Sep. 25). [NYT]
  • Judge Boggs gets it right at Federalist Society conference: judicial independence is a means, not an end. [Above the Law]
  • Speaking of the Federalist Society, Justice Alito gave an entertaining speech. [C-SPAN (Real Media)]
  • “Among those swept up under [Georgia’s] definition of sex offender are a … mother of five who was convicted of being a party to a crime of statutory rape because, her indictment alleged, she did not do enough to stop her 15-year-old daughter’s sexual activity.” [WaPo via Tabarrok]
  • Signs of a lack of remorse: “In a follow-up e-mail, [Wesley] Snipes directed me to a Web site that praised him for not paying income taxes under the theory that careful reading of the tax codes suggests that only foreign-based income is taxed.” [Orlando Sentinel via TaxProf Blog via Lat; see also ancient Usenet post—I still haven’t fully learned not to argue with idiots]
  • Betcha you didn’t know that using the n-word was morally equivalent to killing two people and seeking to profit from it, but if you cut Michael Richards more slack than OJ Simpson, LA Times columnist thinks it’s because you’re racist. [Kaplan @ LA Times]

Lockyer flayed on autos-‘n’-global-warming suit

It’s “kooky” and “trivializes a serious problem”, editorializes the Los Angeles Times: “California shouldn’t be in the business of filing meritless suits to gain leverage in other cases“. “It’s not his job to make law through frivolous lawsuits,” opines the San Jose Mercury News (via Wilson). It’s “reprehensible… little more than a political stunt,” adds the Orange County Register. Veteran political columnist Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee terms the suit “Lockyer’s bid to become the champion of cheesiness“. One who does like the suit, curiously enough: an environmental adviser to Gov. Schwarzenegger named Terry Tamminen. And the San Francisco Chronicle investigates: what do state lawmakers drive? More here, here and here (cross-posted from Point of Law).

Calif. AG sues automakers for global warming

In a first-of-its-kind suit, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer is demanding damages from automakers for the impact of global warming. “Because, after all, the California attorney general is the one who should be deciding national policy on the global warming controversy,” notes Ted at Point of Law. Even accepting Lockyer’s contentions at face value, autos sold in California contribute less than 1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions (David Shepherdson, “Calif. sues over auto emissions”, Detroit News, Sept. 21).

Is Lockyer making it up as he goes along with the new suit, legal-theory-wise? It would seem so. His theory that autos constitute a nuisance have never been enacted as law even by the California legislature, yet he’s asserting it retroactively to punish past behavior by Detroit and Japan worldwide. His views clash strongly with those held by elected officials in many other states, which is one reason our system gives the U.S. Congress, rather than the California attorney general, the right to set national environmental policy. His notion that internal combustion engines might not be unlawful in themselves, but constitute nuisance in this case because manufacturers could be doing more to minimize their impact, makes as much sense (which is to say, no sense whatever) as if he sued California’s own drivers on the grounds that they contribute to the problem by taking unnecessary trips.

Prof. Bainbridge has quite a bit more to say about the abuse of power involved in using this type of litigation as an end run around the political branches of government which are the proper locus of authority on policy matters of this sort (Sept. 21).

Reader Earl Wertheimer writes: “I would rather see the automakers simply agree to stop selling cars in California. Let them walk & bicycle for a while. This would promote better fitness and also reduce future obesity lawsuits.”

Reader Loren Siebert writes: “I wonder if the discovery process will include how many motor vehicles the state of CA has purchased and operates.” And Nick Fenton at DTT Buzz has suggestions for more litigation (Sept. 20).

More: Lockyer “is unlikely to win” the suit, according to legal experts interviewed, especially since “a similar case brought by California and other states against utilities companies in 2004 failed in the courts”. “Even with a small chance of success, environmental advocates say the new legal action is useful and necessary”, one reason being “to pressure carmakers”. “I hope that automakers realise this will be the first of a series of lawsuits,” says Jim Marston of Environmental Defense. (Roxanne Khamsi, “California faces uphill battle on car emissions”, New Scientist, Sept. 22). EconBrowser (Sept. 24):

…the key question in my mind is not the extent to which reducing greenhouse emissions from vehicles may be a good idea, but rather whether, under previously existing U.S. law, it has been lawful to manufacture cars that emit carbon dioxide. I submit that it has, and if a judge somewhere now creatively determines that a company can be punished for such perfectly lawful behavior, then I fear that America is no longer a nation ruled by law, but rather ruled at the whim of whatever those currently wielding power happen to think might be a good idea.

Yet more: Brian Doherty, Reason “Hit and Run”, Sept. 21.

Dissent on global warming? See ya in court

“For no apparent reason, the state of California, Environmental Defense, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have dragged [MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology Richard] Lindzen and about 15 other global- warming skeptics into a lawsuit over auto- emissions standards. California et al. have asked the auto companies to cough up any and all communications they have had with Lindzen and his colleagues, whose research has been cited in court documents.” (Alex Beam, “MIT’s inconvenient scientist”, Boston Globe, Aug. 30).

$18 million “sudden acceleration” verdict in South Carolina

It’s been nearly two decades since NHTSA refuted the concept of sudden acceleration, yet state courts are still permitting junk science experts to put forward irreproducable theories of electromagnetic interference taking over cruise control. Seventeen-year-old Sonya Thomas claims EMI caused her automobile to take off, causing her to lose control and kill a passenger and paralyze herself. Of course, rather than turn the cruise control off or hit the brakes, Thomas unbuckled her seatbelt and reached under the seat to unstick a gas pedal, which is more consistent with her jamming the gas pedal under an upside-down floormat than anything else. Never mind: though belted passengers were uninjured in the 70-80 mph crash, the South Carolina state jury awarded $18 million to the plaintiffs, and the American automobile industry died a little bit more. (Paul Alongi and Jess Davis, “Cruise control led to crash, jury says”, Greenville News, Aug. 7; Julie Howle, “Jury begins deliberations in crash trial”, Greenville News, Aug. 6; Julie Howle, “Witness disputes seat-belt usage in crash”, Greenville News, Aug. 5; Julie Howle, “Jurors in lawsuit see hard evidence in 1999 rollover”, Greenville News, Jul. 25; “Jury Hears Claims Of Ford Explorer Problems”, WYFF4, Jul. 20).

(March 2010 update: Reversed.)

Great moments in lawyer discipline

Way back in 2000, a Texas trial judge dismissed a $2 billion products liability suit against DaimlerChrysler and imposed sanctions of $865,000 on San Antonio attorney Robert Kugle and two associates at his firm, Andrew Toscano and Robert “Trey” Wilson III, also referring the matter to the State Bar of Texas for possible disciplinary action. As we summarized the episode in our post of Jul. 20, 2003, the judge found “that the steering decoupler of the sued-over Dodge Neon had been altered to simulate mechanical failure and that Mexican policemen had been asked to change their accounts of the accident giving rise to the suit. An appeals court called the firm’s conduct ‘an egregious example of the worst kind of abuse of the judicial system.'” Now, six years later, the leisurely process of state bar discipline still hasn’t run its course in Toscano’s case, Wilson drew a two-year probated suspension, and both men are practicing law in San Antonio. The American Tort Reform Association doesn’t think that’s a suitable outcome. (Mary Alice Robbins, “‘Texas Justice Massacre’ Billboard Targets Attorney’s Alleged Misconduct”, Texas Lawyer, Jul. 5; David Shepardson, “Chrysler takes fight to lawyers”, Detroit News, Mar. 21).