State Supreme Court Grants New Trial in Missouri Auto Products Liability Lawsuit

Victims of a fatal a rear-end crash can have a new trial in their Missouri product liability lawsuit, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled May 5. According to the Associated Press, the court said misbehavior by attorneys for Ford tainted the trial, entitling motorist Michael Nolte and the family of Trooper Michael Newton to a new trial. The decision is also seen as a victory for law enforcement officers and families who have long contended that Ford Crown Victorias — vehicles commonly used as police cars — are unreasonably likely to explode into flames when rear-ended.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to Nolte and Newton in 2003. Newton, the state trooper, had pulled Nolte over for a traffic violation and put him in the trooper’s car on the shoulder of Interstate 70. When they were rear-ended by a pickup truck, the cruiser burst into flames, killing Newton and injuring Nolte before he could be pulled from the fire. Newton’s family and Nolte sued Ford, alleging that Ford’s vehicle design was defective because it placed the fuel tank behind the back axle, making an explosion likely in a rear-end accident. They also sued the truck’s driver and his or her employer, a claim that has been resolved and is not at issue in the appeal.
At trial, Missouri product liability attorneys for the plaintiff wanted to introduce evidence of ten similar accidents involving rear-ended Crown Victorias — four before Newton’s accident and six after. They were particularly interested in showing evidence that Crown Victorias retrofitted with shields on their gas tanks, as Newton’s was, still carried an unreasonably high risk of explosion. The judge ruled that they could only introduce the four earlier accidents, but a lawyer for Ford introduced evidence about the six others anyway. Because the plaintiffs were under the judge’s orders not to discuss that evidence or argue their side of the story, this put them at a disadvantage, the Missouri Supreme Court found. Thus, it said, they are entitled to a new trial.
Members of the law enforcement community have been concerned about problems with Crown Victoria gas tanks for more than 20 years. (The related Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car may share this flaw, though they are less likely to be used as police cars.) The concern is the placement of the vehicle’s gas tank behind the rear axle, which critics say make it highly likely to be punctured in a rear-end collision, causing an instant explosion. Within moments, officers and others inside the car can be surrounded by flames. By one estimate, at least 21 law enforcement officers and uncounted civilians have died in this way. In 2002, Ford retrofitted hundreds of thousands of police Crown Victorias with gas tank shields, but critics dispute whether this has helped.
Flaws such as this with the design or manufacture of a vehicle are a form of product defects, just like problems with toys or hairbrushes. When they cause or exacerbate a serious car wreck, victims in Missouri have the right to file a St. Louis auto product liability lawsuit holding the vehicle’s manufacturer legally responsible. In these lawsuits, victims can claim compensation for the loss of a loved one, a permanent disability or a serious injury, as well as compensation for medical bills and other costs of the crash.
If you and your family are in this situation, Carey, Danis & Lowe would like to help. Based in St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., we represent people who were injured by flawed consumer products throughout Missouri and southern Illinois. If you would like to learn more, we offer free, confidential consultations — so there’s no risk to you in telling us about your case and learning about your legal options. To set one up, you can contact us through our Web site or call 1-877-678-3400.