As a St. Louis auto products liability attorney, I was interested to see a case alleging serious defects in a Ford that led to a man’s death. Stokes v. Ford Motor Co. et al. concerned the death of Peter Andrew Carter, an Australian who was driving a rented Ford Explorer when he was hit by at-fault driver Todd Durham. The representative for Carter’s estate, Dennis Stokes, sued Durham as well as Overland West, Inc., the rental company, and Ford Motor Co. The allegations against Ford said it could and should have used a design that would have protected the driver better in a rollover crash. After the jury found Durham liable but not Ford, Stokes appealed, arguing that the trial court should not have excluded several pieces of evidence and should have granted default judgment as a sanction. The Montana Supreme Court disagreed.
Carter was in Montana for work in 2002 when he rented a mid-year model 2002 Ford Explorer at the Bozeman airport. Five days later, Durham turned left in Carter’s path, and the resulting crash rolled over the Explorer five times, killing Carter but sparing a passenger. Stokes sued in 2005, alleging Ford should have made better rollover protections standard, and Overland, the car rental company, should have purchased them as an option. After a 10-day trial, the jury agreed that Durham was responsible for the crash, but Ford and Overland were not. This appeal followed.
Stokes first argued that he should have been granted a default judgment on liability because Ford withheld evidence of similar incidents. The court limited discovery of this after Ford said it identified more than 1,350 such cases, but Ford neglected to deliver most of it until three weeks before trial. The trial court agreed that Ford could have done better, but declined to sanction it with a default judgment. The Montana Supreme Court agreed, deferring to the trial court’s judgment. It also upheld the exclusion of similar incident information that Stokes had obtained independently, deferring to the trial court’s judgment that Stokes hadn’t established enough similarity. Similarly, the high court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s exclusion of evidence that the safety features at issue were standard in other countries in 2002, but not in the U.S. until 2007. And it found no error in the court’s rejection of Stokes’s jury instructions.
The centerpiece of this case might be the allegations that Ford failed to adequately respond to discovery requests. As a Missouri product liability attorney, I believe the huge number of similar incidents could have been a helpful piece of evidence for Stokes, but Ford turned it into liability by withholding most of the evidence until just before trial. The case was complicated, as the opinion noted, by the fact that Stokes and several witnesses had to fly from Australia to Montana for trial. That made it harder and potentially quite expensive for them to request a delay in order to go through the late evidence. Though the trial court apparently felt that a default judgment was an inappropriate sanction, I am surprised, as a southern Illinois car accident lawyer, that it didn’t see fit to impose some kind of sanction. Well-funded opponents like Ford should not be permitted to play games with the cases of ordinary people hurt by manufacturer negligence.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients who suffered serious injuries or lost a loved one in accidents involving a defective product, including defective cars and auto parts. If you believe you were hurt by corporate negligence and you’d like to talk to us about your rights and your legal options, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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