$290 Million Punitive Award against Ford Stands
Sanders, Carol McHugh, Defense Counsel Journal
Voting 4-3 and, according to a story in The Recorder [San Francisco], causing corporations nationwide to issue a "collective gasp," the California Supreme Court declined to review or depublish a California Court of Appeal decision that imposed a $290 million punitive award against Ford Motor Co. in a products liability case in which three family members died in a rollover crash. 2002 Cal. Lexis 7254. The court's order lets stand the intermediate appellate court's decision and lengthy opinion in Romo v. Ford Motor Co., 122 Cal.Rptr.2d 139 (Cal.App. 2002), which reversed the trial court's order allowing a new trial on punitive damages based on juror misconduct.
The case arose from an accident a decade ago involving a 1978 Ford Bronco. Both Romo parents and one child were killed when the vehicle rolled over several times. The suit alleged that the Bronco was defectively designed because only the front one third of the roof had steel support, while the remainder was made of fiberglass, which easily collapsed in the rollover accident.
After a four-month trial in 1999, a jury awarded the three surviving Romo children $6.226 million in compensatory and $290 million in punitive damages. Granting Ford's post-trial motion for a new trial on punitive damages based on juror misconduct, the trial court also reduced the compensatory award to $4.935 million.
Juror declarations filed at the post-trial stage revealed that one juror, during deliberations on the malice aspects of the case, commented that she had watched a television news program reporting on fires that occurred in older Ford Mustangs. She recounted to the jury that the former Ford chairman had said that the company would rather contest or settle the fire-related lawsuits than recall and fix all the vehicles. The jury foreperson, who was a deputy district attorney, told the juror that the news program was not evidence in their case and should not be discussed further, according to the juror declarations.
Another juror, Ford alleged, engaged in misconduct by recounting during deliberations a dream she from the night before in which a Ford Bronco rolled over, killing her own children and many others while Ford representatives stood by questioning the proof of the event. Her discussion of the dream occurred after the jury decided compensatory damages and before the vote on malice. Several other jurors stated that this juror repeatedly said during deliberations that the jury must "save the babies" by finding Ford liable. The jury voted 9-3 on the issue of malice and the amount of punitive damages.
The Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Judge Vartabedian, found no juror misconduct had occurred and reversed the trial court's order. Nothing in the trial record indicated that the court should reject the normal presumption that the jury followed the court's instructions, he stated, adding that the trial court, several days into the jury deliberations and after widespread news coverage about a large verdict against General Motors, admonished the jury to consider only the evidence presented at the trial and to ignore any news accounts concerning their case or any other case. …