Ford Motor Company Wins Wrongful Death Case

Following a week-long trial, a twelve-person Crenshaw County jury returned a verdict today for Ford Motor Company in a wrongful death case filed by Dwight Sasser, as administrator of the estate of his deceased daughter, LeAnna Sasser Stubbs. Ms. Stubbs died as a result of injuries suffered in an accident on July 3, 1998, in which her 1992 Ford Escort collided with a 1993 Oldsmobile 88 at the intersection of County Road 50 and County Road 83 near the Crenshaw-Butler county line. The front of Ms. Stubbs’ Escort, which police officers and expert witnesses estimated was travelling near 60 miles per hour in a 40-mile-per-hour zone, struck the Oldsmobile as it was turning onto County Road 50. The crash knocked the Escort 50 feet off the roadway and the Oldsmobile almost 65 feet back and to its right down County Road 50.

The plaintiff, who was represented by Jere Beasley, Rick Morrison and Dana Taunton of the Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles firm in Montgomery, and Mike Jones of Jones & Coots in Luverne, argued that the seat belt system in the Escort was defective. The vehicle was equipped with a automatic shoulder belt and manual lap belt, and the plaintiff alleged that due to poor belt fit and a failure of the lap belt in the wreck, Ms. Stubbs suffered a lacerated liver caused by the shoulder belt. Ms. Stubbs died of a liver laceration two days after the incident.

Ford, meanwhile, who was represented by LF&W lawyers Harlan Prater and Drew Kelly, Billy King and John Nichols from Luverne, and Rosie Page from Richmond, Virginia, showed that the 1992 Ford Escort exceeded all of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and had, in fact, been awarded five stars – the highest safety rating possible – in crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The automatic seat belt system had been successful in helping to increase seat belt usage from 20 percent in the 1980s to over 90 percent in the 1990s, and Ms. Stubbs’ seat belt, Ford argued, performed as designed in the accident. Rather than her fatal injury being caused by a defect in the seat belt, Ford presented evidence that 95 percent of serious injuries and deaths occur at speeds less than those involved in Ms. Stubbs’ wreck, and that Ms. Stubbs’ body could not withstand the substantial forces acting on it as a result of the collision.

The trial was one of the largest product liability cases to be tried in Crenshaw County in many years. Jere Beasley, one of the most prominent plaintiffs’ attorneys in the state, asked the jury for $25 million in damages to punish Ford for a design which, he argued, Ford knew was defective and unreasonably dangerous. The jury returned its verdict after 50 minutes of deliberations.

Following the verdict, LF&W partner Harlan Prater said, “Ford is gratified by the jury’s verdict. While this was a tragic accident, and we regret that Ms. Stubbs died as a result of it, we believe that the evidence showed that the seat belt system in the 1992 Ford Escort was a good, safe design. We are very pleased that the jury agreed with us.”

Attorneys mentioned in this post:
S. Andrew Kelly Thumbnail S. Andrew Kelly

Practice areas mentioned:
Product Liability