Shortly after a Florida jury hit Ford Motor Co. with a $12.9 million verdict, paraplegic Tami Martin said she would give half her award back if the automobile company agrees to forgo an appeal and start warning people not to use reclining seats while driving.
Ford rejected the offer, saying it will appeal the verdict.
The case was based on the premise that seat belts become ineffective – and even dangerous – when a passenger rides with the seat reclined back. Ford knew about the hazard but failed to warn customers, according to Angelo Patacca, one of Martin’s attorneys.
“Ford took the safety out of seatbelts in this case,” he said.
Patacca explained that the settlement offer was an attempt by his client to ensure that others do not suffer a similar fate.
“She is adamant that people need to be warned about this danger,” he said. “She’s willing to give back half of the jury verdict if they agree not to appeal and instead put safety decals on their vehicles warning of the danger. That’s how strongly she feels about this.”
But Ford noted at trial that no car manufacturer warns about using reclining seats when the car is in motion. The company contended that this was a simple case of driver error.
“This was a tragic accident caused when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a parked ambulance. The air bag deployed as it should have, but the passenger was reclined in her seat with her feet resting on the dashboard. The jury’s finding that Ford did not adequately warn against riding in this position is simply incorrect,” said Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes.
Martin was buckled in the passenger side of a Ford Aerostar minivan driven by her 70-year-old mother when the vehicle, traveling at about 30 mph, hit an ambulance that was stopped at a red light in 1999. Martin was returning to school in Gainesville where she was a student.
Her mother walked away uninjured. Martin, now 34, will never walk again, Patacca said.
The reason, Patacca told the jury, was that Martin had the seatback fully reclined, making her seatbelt ineffective. As a result, Martin slid forward and under the belt, then her upper body flipped over the belt with such force that it damaged her spinal cord, he said.
“She submarined under the seatbelt,” he said. “Reclining your seat when the car is driving makes the seatbelt useless, and it makes the safety belt actually the instrument that will either harm you or kill you.”
Her mother and the driver of the other car were both belted and sitting upright in their seats and did not suffer any serious injuries, Patacca said.
Martin, who was studying broadcast journalism at the University of Florida, has been devastated by her injuries.
“She lost control of her bowels and bladder, she has no movement in her legs, she suffers from ulcers and recurring urinary tract infections. She’s had significant weight gain,” Patacca said.
The ‘Cowboy Commercial’
Ford argued at trial that it did warn customers, since the owner’s manual tells customers not to put seats in reclining positions when the car is moving.
But Patacca said that kind of warning is not enough – especially since the manufacturer promoted the reclining seats as a feature to be used while driving.
The plaintiff’s team offered two key pieces of evidence to support this argument. The first was a 1998 Ford brochure that “touts the reclining seat features for long trips,” Patacca said.
The second was a 2005 television commercial – dubbed the “cowboy commercial” – which shows a man reclined in the passenger seat with his feet, clad in Western boots, feet resting on the dashboard.
“This commercial played for six weeks in the spring of 2005,” said Patacca. “It was very important to the case because it rebuts their argument that this an obvious danger and everyone knows about it and we don’t need to warn. As late as 2005, they were using reclining seats in a commercial. If you travel down the highway for 10 minutes, that’s the way you’ll see these seats being used.”
Patacca said that Ford has done little to let the public know.
“They manufacture these seats to be used in a reclining position and they certainly know people will use them while driving. It’s a danger that 90 percent of people don’t even know about, but they say it’s an obvious danger that they don’t have to warn or guard against,” he said.
He said the jury was allowed to hear evidence about six similar cases in which people have been seriously injured or killed in the last two decades.
He also pointed to a 1988 letter from the National Transportation Safety Board warning about the danger of riding reclined.
“The NTSB said they were disturbed that automakers were advertising with passengers reclined while vehicles were obviously in motion,” he said. “That was in 1988.”
An expert for the plaintiffs testified that less than 5 percent of people actually read their owner’s manual and that a line in a manual does not constitute an adequate warning. In order for a warning to be heeded, it should be in plain sight and should state the hazards.
“It has to be in a location where it will catch your eye, it has to tell you what the problem is and tell you why you shouldn’t do it: If you recline in the seat you could be seriously injured or killed,” Patacca said. “Only then would it be effective.”
Another plaintiff’s expert testified that Ford could also install a device that would not allow the car to be put in drive if the seat was in a reclined position. It would be similar to the safety device that will not allow a car to shift into drive unless the brake is being depressed.
“There are lights that warn you when your washer fluid is low. Ford has the technology to warn you if the seat is in a reclined position,” said Patacca.
After a two-week trial in Jacksonville, Fla., the jury awarded Martin $16,947,445 but found her 24 percent at fault for her injuries. As a result, Ford is liable for $12.9 million in damages.
Plaintiff´s Attorneys: Angelo M. Patacca Jr. of Terrell Hogan in Jacksonville, Fla.; Robert L. Langdon, Robert C. Sullivan and Daniel Allen of Langdon & Emison in Lexington, Mo.
Defense Attorneys: Frank McDonald, Scott Richman and Alina Alonso of Carlton Fields in Orlando, Fla.
The Case: Martin v. Ford; Oct. 21, 2005; Circuit Court, Fourth Judicial Circuit, Duval County, Fla.; Judge James Harrison.
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