Ford secured a $1.7 billion verdict for the roof collapse of an F-Class pickup that killed a couple
The jury appears to endorse the plaintiff’s arguments that Ford knew of the problem years before the fatal crash, and acted slowly to correct it and that the other deaths were caused by the same design flaw.
Attorney Jim Butler Jr., who won the ruling, said evidence presented in the case showed that F-250 pickups built in the 17 years prior to 2017 all posed a risk to drivers and passengers in rollover situations. He said 5.2 million trucks were built with the same faulty roof.
Most worrisome, Butler said, is that the best-selling F-150 pickup truck built before the 2009 model year has a very similar roof design. The F-150 has been the best-selling automobile of any kind in the United States for more than 40 years.
“There are many millions of F-150s on the road with that ceiling,” Butler told CNN Business Monday. “I don’t know how many there are. They won’t answer that at the trial.”
The April 2014 accident in Gwinnett County, Georgia, killed Melvin Hill, 72, and his wife, Foncel Hill, 62. A jury had earlier awarded the family $24 million in damages. The jury awarded the additional $1.7 billion in damages on Friday.
Butler said the case originally went to trial in 2018, but prosecutors got a wrongful trial three weeks later because Ford presented evidence that the court had ordered the company not to appear.
Butler said the punitive damages were awarded because Ford knew well before the 2014 accident that it had a roof problem. He said Ford engineers had already designed a safer roof, but the automaker didn’t immediately move to install it on trucks.
“Long before the Hills got killed, Ford knew about their engineers, their crash tests, and the dozens of accidents where people were killed, and it did nothing,” Butler said.
Ford would not comment on Butler’s statement that older F-150s and F-250s had similar decks at risk of crashing. She has said she intends to appeal the massive ruling.
“While we sympathize with the Hill family, we do not believe the ruling is supported by evidence, and we plan to appeal,” the company said. “In the meantime, we will not file a lawsuit on this matter through the media.”
For years, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has exempted heavy trucks like the F-250 from the same safety standards as passenger cars and trucks. But Butler said that didn’t make a difference in this case.
“The NHTSA standard is irrelevant,” he said. “By law there is no defense.”
And it wasn’t a change in the NHTSA standard, but potential pickup buyers researching the vehicle’s safety record finally prompted Ford to put a stronger cap on both the F-150 and F-250, according to Butler.
Butler said the evidence in the case clearly showed that Hills would have survived the crash had the cabin roof not collapsed on them.
“Maybe they were also in a convertible,” he said.
Butler acknowledged that the $1.7 billion ruling is likely to be reduced on appeal, but he hopes it will serve as a wake-up call for both automakers and pickup truck owners.
“The Hill family is grateful to the jury for their ruling, and they are thrilled that this phase of the litigation is finally over,” Butler said. “It was the awarding of punitive damages to warn the people who ride the millions of those Ford trucks sold that the Hill family insisted on a judgment.”
If the higher courts uphold punitive damages, the Hill family and their attorneys would only receive 25% of the judgment amount. Under Georgia law, the state receives 75% of awards awarded by the courts. Butler said the only way the plaintiffs would get the full amount of punitive damages was if a settlement was reached between the two sides.