Plaintiff Lawyer Didn’t Think Big in Rollover Case

When Ford Motor Co. took a $150 million hit in San Diego County Superior Court two years ago in a Ford Explorer rollover case, defense lawyer Anthony Sonnett drew a lot of the blame for appearing to have conceded during argument that Ford “knowingly put a defective product on the market.”

On Wednesday, the Fourth District Court of Appeal sliced the award to $82 million. And now it’s plaintiff attorney Dennis Schoville’s turn for second-guessing.

A major issue in Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Co. was the $105 million in noneconomic damages the jury had awarded to Benetta Buell-Wilson, who was rendered paraplegic when her Explorer rolled over. Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright reduced that amount to $65 million.

But the Fourth District ruled that even $65 million was excessive, and further reduced it Wednesday to $18 million. How did the Fourth District arrive at the $18 million figure?

At trial, Justice Gilbert Nares noted, Wilson’s attorney stated in closing argument: “I respectfully submit that if you look at the catastrophic injury that we have, the numbers there, they are probably three to four times the specials is what you are going to find. It’s going to be fair, just and reasonable. And this is an awful lot of money. I know it is.”

Compensatory damages were $4.6 million, Nares wrote. “Thus, counsel was requesting the jury award noneconomic damages to Mrs. Wilson in an amount three to four times the amount they awarded in economic damages, or $13.8 to $18.4 million.”

Nares noted that Schoville had further stated: “I invite defense counsel to address my discussion of damages. If he does not discuss damages in closing, if he does not disagree with me, you can accept these numbers as reasonable and just and fair.”

Nares noted that defense counsel did not disagree. The jury’s award of $105 million, then, “far exceeded and had no relation to, the amounts requested by counsel,” which “suggests that the jury was not acting as a fair and neutral trier of fact.” 

Because the appeal court reduced the noneconomic damages award, it also had to reduce the punitive damages award from $75 million to $55 million.

But the news wasn’t all bad for the plaintiffs’ side. In fact, there was much to cheer. Backed by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and counsel from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and O’Melveny & Myers, Ford had argued on appeal for a broad new rule that would apply due process considerations to noneconomic damage awards — much as the U.S. Supreme Court has done for punitive damages.

The Fourth District rejected that argument out of hand. The auto manufacturer group “relies heavily upon a law review article for its position that the vague standards for quantifying noneconomic damage awards justifies imposing federal due process constraints on such awards,” Nares wrote. “However, the author of that article concluded that the solution to such unchecked awards is limits or standards imposed by legislatures, not application of due process notions to compensatory awards.”

Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin represented Buell-Wilson on appeal.

Ford will likely renew the due process argument before the California Supreme Court. But Nares’ carefully written opinion — and the reduction of the award in the case — make it unlikely the Supremes will bite.

— Scott Graham


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