The Fifth District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed a $43 million jury verdict against Ford Motor Company stemming from a July 2003 automobile accident. The accident involved a Ford Motor Company 1993 Lincoln Town Car, which was equipped with an "aft-of-axle" fuel tank system. During the subject accident, this fuel tank system ruptured after the Lincoln Town Car was rear-ended by another vehicle, causing a pipe wrench in the Lincoln Town Car's trunk to puncture the fuel tank. This caused the Lincoln Town Car to catch fire and resulted in the death of one passenger and the severe injury of another.
At trial, the plaintiffs alleged that Ford was liable for the negligent design of the fuel tank system and the failure to warn customers of the risks of trunk contents puncturing the fuel tank. To prove its case, plaintiffs enlisted multiple auto industry and engineering experts to testify in their favor that the fuel tank system was defective. Likewise, in its defense, Ford enlisted a number of its own experts to testify as to the fuel tank system's sufficiency. This voluminous competing testimony created a lengthy trial record. Nevertheless, in the end, the jury found for plaintiffs, relying primarily on (1) Ford's subsequent design and manufacture of non-aft-of-axle fuel tank systems in the overwhelming majority of its vehicles; (2) Ford's knowledge of the dangers of the aft-of-axle fuel tank system, and (3) Ford's failure to instruct or warn its customers of the fuel tank system's dangers. These findings led to the jury's $43 million verdict for plaintiffs, which included $15 million in punitive damages.
After entry of the jury verdict, Ford quickly appealed, relying on somewhat technical legal arguments. Among other things, Ford argued that (1) the plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to justify submitting their negligence claims to the jury, (2) the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Ford's efforts to improve the fuel tank system at issue after the sale of the subject Lincoln Town Car, and (3) the trial court erred and abused its discretion in refusing to tender various instructions and special interrogatories to the jury. Unimpressed with Ford's arguments, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court verdict in its entirety, leaving Ford liable for the $43 million.
This case brings to light a number of legal issues for manufacturers in the U.S. First and foremost, this case is a prime example of how a manufacturer's knowledge of a product's dangers can lead to significant liability if such dangers are not reasonably addressed. Moreover, this case demonstrates how a manufacturer's subsequently improved product can adversely affect the manufacturer if the previous, unimproved product continues to be sold.