$290M Ford Verdict Overturned

A judge overturned a $290 million punitive damage verdict against Ford Motor Co. on Thursday in a rollover accident that killed three people, saying a juror's dream and a television show tainted deliberations.
During deliberations, a juror allegedly talked about a nightmare in which jurors' children were killed by a rolling-over Ford Bronco while company lawyers chanted, "Where's the proof?"

A second juror said she had heard about a CBS News 60 Minutes episode on fires in Ford Mustangs in which then-President Lee Iacocca made callous remarks about vehicle safety.

Both jurors submitted statements saying they based their verdicts solely on the evidence. But Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne granted Ford a new trial on the punitive damages, saying jury misconduct may have influenced the verdict.

Beauchesne noted that the jury vote on punitive damages was 9-3, the exact majority needed.

He upheld the jury's unanimous finding that a defective roof was responsible for the deaths of a husband, wife and son when their Ford Bronco overturned on a freeway in June 1993. The jury awarded surviving family members $5 million in compensation, an amount Beauchesne reduced by $469,000.

Ford spokesman Jim Cain said the ruling was gratifying but the company maintains the Bronco wasn't defective and may appeal further.

The verdict was the second-largest of its kind, coming two weeks after $4.9 billion was awarded by a Los Angeles jury to six people who were severely burned when their Chevrolet exploded in a rear-end collision.

Juan Romo was driving the 1978 Bronco when he swerved to avoid a van he was passing. The vehicle rolled, killing Romo's mother, Salustia, 40; his father, Ramon, 39; and his brother, Ramiro, 18.

Romo, then 19, and his two surviving sisters, Evangelina, 14, and Maria, 8, were slightly injured.

Their lawyers argued that Ford knew the roof was unsafe but decided to save the small extra cost of reinforcing it with steel, a change made on post-1979 Broncos. Plaintiffs' witnesses included a former Ford executive vice president, who said company officials knew the roof was virtually certain to fail in a rollover.

Ford said the Bronco was sound and met federal safety standards, and blamed the deaths on Romo and the driver he was passing.

In seeking a new trial, Ford offered jurors' statements that juror Denise Salinas described a 60 Minutes segment about faulty fuel tanks in Ford Mustangs.

Iacocca, then Ford's president, was allegedly quoted as saying Ford would rather defend against lawsuits than recall or fix vehicles. Beauchesne said Thursday a tape of the program contained no such statement.

The Romos' lawyers recently submitted a sworn statement from Ms. Salinas in which she said she briefly mentioned what someone had told her about the program, but agreed with another juror that it was irrelevant to th case.

Ford also submitted declarations that a second juror, Karen Zaccheo, described her nightmare about rolling Broncos and burning children as an "omen" and told other jurors they did not need to follow the law.

Zaccheo's declaration, offered by the Romos' lawyers, confirmed the dream but denied the additional statements. The plaintiffs' lawyers also noted that Beauchesne had told jurors to consider only the facts established in court.

But the judge said he couldn't presume his order was followed.

"The jury was being told not to think of the proverbial pink elephant," he said.

Cain, the Ford spokesman, said the new-trial order was "like waking up from a bad dream" and should tell the public that large punitive damage awards may be unjustified.