Van roof crushes in during rollover, paralyzing driver

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Case in Point

September 14, 2010

Van roof crushes in during rollover, paralyzing driver 

The plaintiffs claimed that the van was uncrashworthy in that the roof lacked adequate strength to withstand the forces of a foreseeable rollover. They also alleged that a company that had converted the van to a four-wheel-drive vehicle was liable because the modification raised the van’s center of gravity. Lee v. Ford Motor Co.

Sang-Mook Lee, a 43-year-old college professor from South Korea, brought a group of students to California for a joint field trip with the California Institute of Technology. As Lee was driving a 1998 Ford E350 Econoline 12-passenger van on a dirt road, the van rolled over and its roof collapsed. A student in the van was ejected and killed. Lee, who was wearing his seat belt, suffered a spinal fracture at C4-5, resulting in quadriplegia. He now uses a wheelchair and requires assistance with many living activities.

Lee incurred about $1 million in past medical expenses in the United States and another $250,000 in medical expenses after returning home to Korea. His future life-care costs based on care in Korea are estimated at $1.9 million. He was able to return to his job and did not incur lost earnings.

Lee sued Ford Motor Co., alleging the van was uncrashworthy in that the roof lacked adequate strength to withstand the forces of a foreseeable rollover. The plaintiff offered evidence that Ford had no roof-strength standard for its 12- and 15-passenger vans and that the strength-to-weight ratio of the Econoline vans was less than 1.5—Ford’s internal standard for smaller passenger vehicles and light trucks requiring the roof corner to withstand 1.5 times the vehicle’s weight.

Suit also named Quigley Motors, a company that converted the van to a four-wheel-drive vehicle, alleging that the modification raised the van’s center of gravity.

Quigley settled before trial for $775,000, including $405,000 in economic damages.

Ford argued that Lee’s injury occurred before the roof deformed, when he “dove” toward the roof during the rollover.

In the claims against Ford, the jury was instructed on both the consumer-expectation test and the risk-utility test. It found for the plaintiff under both tests, assessing liability at 65 percent to Ford and 35 percent to Lee.

The jury awarded just under $4.7 million. After apportionment of fault, the verdict totals about $3.05 million.

The trial court denied Ford’s motion to reduce the award for past medical expenses to the amount paid by Lee and his insurer, but it granted Ford’s motion seeking a credit for the Quigley settlement. Ford will receive a credit of $405,000—the amount of the settlement allocated to economic damages.

Citation: Lee v. Ford Motor Co., No. GC038243 (Cal., Los Angeles Co. Super. July 23, 2010).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ members Christine Spagnoli and Bruce Broillet, both of Santa Monica, California.

Plaintiff experts: Steve Forrest, roof structure, design, and testing, Goleta, California; Martha Bidez, biomechanics/injury causation, Birmingham, Alabama; Robert Caldwell, accident reconstruction, Lafayette, Colorado; Joel Rosen, spinal cord injury rehabilitation and life expectancy, Northridge, California; and Carol Hyland, life-care planning, Lafayette, California.

Defense experts: Jeff Croteau, roof structure, design, and testing, Natick, Massachusetts; and Robert Piziali, biomechanics/injury causation, San Carlos, California.


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