Record Punitive Damage Verdict Against Ford
After seven weeks of testimony and five days of deliberation, a Sacramento County jury returned a verdict for the Tony Mauro family, represented by Roger A. Dreyer of Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, LLP, of over $70 million with compensatory damages for the Mauro family in the amount of $17.5 million. This wrongful death verdict exceeded the previous wrongful death verdict in Sacramento County which was obtained by Mr. Dreyer in 2009 in the Jennifer Strange wrongful death matter involving the highly publicized “hold your wee for a Wii” water intoxication death of Ms. Strange. It is also the largest verdict in an automotive product case this year.
On November 10, 2011, a Sacramento jury determined that Ford Motor Company’s conduct was despicable in the handling of a tire replacement program conducted by Goodyear in 2002. The jury determined that Ford, which had information relative to the defective tire from the tire manufacturer, Goodyear, failed to provide information to its customer base and owners of E-350 Econoline 15 Passenger Vans. The jury determined that their conduct was such a breach of their responsibility and duty as a manufacturer that they were subject to an award of punitive damages in the amount of $50 million.
As related by Mr. Dreyer to the Sacramento Bee Newspaper, “A manufacturer cannot have information that deals with the very fabric of human life, of being alive or being dead, and keep that information to themselves. When corporate arrogance is so clearly palpable in a case like this, there is no excuse for them not providing that information.”
About The Case
On April 9, 2004, an E-350 15 Passenger Van owned by the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church suffered a catastrophic right-rear tire tread separation that resulted in the vehicle going out of control, rolling over four times and killing its driver, Bill Brownell, and its front-seat passenger, Tony Mauro.
The Mauro family, represented by Roger A. Dreyer and Robert B. Bale of Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, LLP, pursued an action against Ford Motor Company culminating in a record-setting wrongful death verdict for the Mauro family and the largest punitive damage verdict ever in Sacramento County. Mr. Mauro, who was 41 years old at the time of his death, was married to Susan Mauro and had two sons, Cody and Michael, who were 12 and 15 respectively at the time of their father’s death.
Mr. Mauro, who was an accomplished bass guitarist and by all accounts a wonderful family man and mentor to many in the Sacramento community, was on a trip back home to Sacramento at the time of this incident. The church membership had performed numerous concerts at different churches throughout Southern California and Mr. Mauro, a member of the band, and other members of the church were in the 15 Passenger Van at the time of the incident.
Evidence developed though the course of discovery by the efforts Mr. Dreyer and Mr. Bale, with tremendous assistance by Christine Spagnoli of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, that the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) determined that large vans, like the Ford E-350 15 passenger van, were disproportionately involved in fatal rollover crashes following a tread separation of a rear tire. After the NHTSA opened a defect investigation into the Load Range E tires in November, 2000, Goodyear agreed to replace the older model tires that had been installed on 15 passenger vans with its new design that included a nylon overlay. Goodyear made this determination in the late 1990s and ultimately stopped construction of the 4-ply Goodyear Load Range E Tire in 1999.
Ford Motor Company stopped utilizing this tire because of its failures in 2000 and all new models of E-350 Econoline Vans were provided with the new 6-ply constructed Goodyear tires. Despite Ford’s knowledge of the investigation by NHTSA, the change in construction by Goodyear, and their determination to take the 4-ply tires off of their Vans, Ford never communicated this information to its customer base, its owners of 15 Passenger Vans or its dealerships.
The owner’s manual for all 15 Passenger Vans constructed by Ford before 1999 told them to replace tires with the original manufacturer equipment, which would have been the defective 4-ply Goodyear Load Range E Tire.
Evidence was developed during discovery and at trial that Ford had conducted numerous other tire recalls in 2000 and 2001 involving the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires. In those recall campaigns, Ford was actively involved in notifying its consumer base and its dealerships of the defective tire and the need to get it off of the Explorer models.
In February 2002, more than two years before the death of Tony Mauro, Ford was informed by Goodyear and the NHTSA that they had entered into an agreement to perform a voluntary replacement program of these particular 4-ply Goodyear Load Range E Tires. They specifically asked Ford to provide them with the names of owners of 15 Passenger Vans so that they could contact them.
Prior to receiving this notification by Goodyear and the NHTSA, Ford had been put on notice by the NHTSA, by way of a consumer advisory, that the subject E-350 15 Passenger Vans had been suffering a disproportionate number of rollover events and deaths due to its design and lack of stability when loaded with 10 or more passengers. Despite the knowledge of the consumer advisory about their subject vans, and the knowledge that Goodyear had previously communicated to them about change of construction of the tire and the 2002 replacement campaign, Ford took no action to notify its consumers or its dealers of the dangerous and defective tire.
Through depositions conducted by Robert Bale, it was discovered that the subject van had been in the Suburban Ford dealership for service on six separate occasions after the voluntary replacement program and before the rollover event in 2002. The van was in for service both before the voluntary replacement program, when Ford knew about the change on their new vans of installing the 6-ply constructed tire, and during the timeframe that Goodyear was conducting the voluntary replacement program. The van was also in the dealership on numerous occasions after the voluntary replacement program finished.
At no time did Ford Motor Company ever communicate to its dealers, and in particular Suburban Ford, information of the defective tire and the need to get it off of these 15 Passenger Vans. The Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church’s 15 Passenger Van had on its right rear the precise defective Goodyear Load Range E 4-ply Tire that ultimately failed. This tire had been installed on the subject van in the late 90s prior to the change in construction by Goodyear and before Ford went to the 6-ply tires on its new models in 2000.
During the course of discovery, Mr. Bale was also able to obtain statements from the shop foreman, the service advisor, the warranty administrator and the rental fleet manager that none of them had ever been informed by Ford of the defective tire and the need to have it taken off the 15 Passenger Vans.
This information was particularly disturbing due to the fact that Ford Motor Company has a computer system called OASIS that allows them to communicate directly with all their dealers such that they can notify them of safety campaigns precisely like this one performed by Goodyear.
During the course of trial, Ford’s representatives testified that they did not notify their dealers or the consumers because they viewed it as a “Goodyear campaign” and that they were never specifically asked by Goodyear or the government to notify their customers of this defective tire on the 15 Passenger Vans.
Ford further provided testimony at the time of trial that they viewed this as a “cargo van” when it left Ford Motor Company and, therefore, they did not necessarily provide the VIN number for this particular van to Goodyear. This is despite the fact that they knew in manufacturing of this precise body style that the vehicles are converted into 15 Passenger Vans and sold by Ford dealerships as 15 Passenger Vans. This vehicle was sold new to the Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in 1994 as a 15 Passenger Van. Further, when this van left the Ford Motor Company, it had windows in it and a body style that was designed to take the necessary bench seats and seatbelts for a 15 Passenger Van.
After seven weeks of testimony and five days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict with compensatory damages for the Mauro family in the amount of $17.5 million. The jury, in its deliberations and ultimate verdict, determined that the conduct of Ford Motor Company was despicable and ultimately decided that an appropriate award of $50 million against Ford would, hopefully, educate them on their failure to their consumer base.
Attorney Christine Spagnoli of Greene Broillet & Wheeler partnered with Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, LLP, on the case after she settled the matter on behalf of the Brownell family whom she previously represented. Ms. Spagnoli tried the case with Mr. Dreyer and was invaluable in her efforts on behalf of all plaintiffs. She acted as counsel during the course of the trial for Mr. Alex Bessonov, but worked hand in hand with Mr. Dreyer in the presentation of the evidence and in all aspects of the trial preparation. Her main focus was on the design defect of the subject van. Her assistance and partnership with Mr. Dreyer in trial were crucial to the success of the entire case. The partnering of these two preeminent firms on behalf of the plaintiffs was critical to the success of the matter and achieving the verdict obtained.