November 17, 2005

Jury awards $61 mln in Ford rollover case

MIAMI (Reuters) - A jury has ordered Ford Motor Co. to pay $61 million to the parents of a 17-year-old who died when the Ford Explorer in which he was riding rolled over, a lawyer said on Thursday.

Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, said it would appeal the verdict.

Florida attorney Bruce Kaster said the ruling in favor of his clients turned on the sport utility vehicle's stability and handling and cleared the way for similar trials against Ford to proceed in Florida, Mississippi and California.

Kaster said the Miami jury award exposed "the myth that the problem with the Explorer was a tire problem."

"It's not," Kaster told Reuters. "It's a stability and handling problem."

Ford, which last month struck a $240 million settlement with Bridgestone Corp., manufacturer of the Firestone tires involved in highly publicized 2000 and 2001 safety recalls, has had court awards go against it in other rollover cases.

The recalls came after reports that at least 271 people died in Explorer rollover accidents attributed to tire blowouts.

In the Florida case, teenager Lance Hall was a passenger in the Explorer his friend was driving when it flipped over on Alligator Alley between Naples and Miami in 1997.

The jury awarded his mother and father, who are divorced, $61 million in compensatory damages. It did not award punitive damages.

Ford executives told the U.S. Congress that rollover problems associated with older models of the Explorer SUV were linked to Firestone tires. But Kaster said Ford engineers testified during the trial that they knew in 1989 that the vehicle's chassis needed to be widened and lowered.

The model was redesigned in 2001.

In a statement, Ford expressed its condolences to Hall's family, but said the accident occurred when the driver of the Explorer fell asleep at the wheel.

"Real world experience and testing show that the Explorer is a safe vehicle, consistently performing as well as or better than other vehicles in its class," the statement said.

"We believe strongly in our products and we will appeal the verdict."

(Additional reporting by Michael Connor in Miami)