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$369M Verdict In SUV Rollover

A woman left paralyzed when her Ford Explorer rolled over won a $369 million verdict from Ford Motor Co. in one of the biggest personal-injury awards ever against an automaker.

Benetta Buell-Wilson was awarded $246 million in punitive damages Thursday, two days after the same San Diego County jury ordered Ford to pay compensatory damages of more than $122.6 million.

The verdict marked Ford's first loss after 11 victories in rollover lawsuits involving the Explorer, the nation's best-selling sport-utility vehicle.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker plans to appeal.

The trial, which began March 15, involved a January 2002 interstate accident east of San Diego. Buell-Wilson, 49, swerved to avoid a metal object and lost control of her 1997 Explorer, which rolled 4½ times.

Buell-Wilson, of San Diego, offered to knock $100 million off the damage award if Ford recalled millions of Explorers and corrected the design flaws that she says left her wheelchair-bound.

"I'm hoping they'll fix what's out there because I don't want what's happened to me to happen to anyone else," Buell-Wilson said.

In a statement, Ford insisted the Explorer was safe.

"Although the offer makes a great sound bite, it doesn't change the facts: The Explorer meets or exceeds all federal safety standards. There is no defect with the Explorer," spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said.

Ford has sold more than 5 million Explorers since the vehicle was introduced in 1990, she said.

The award may be the largest personal-injury verdict against an automaker, said Robert Peck, president of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, a Washington, D.C., firm. Peck said he would not be surprised if Ford settled for a smaller amount.

Last year, a California appeals court cut a $290 million punitive-damage verdict to $23.7 million for a Ford Bronco rollover accident that killed three people in Stanislaus County.

Dennis Schoville, one of two attorneys who represented Buell-Wilson, contended Ford had sacrificed passenger safety for profits. The lawsuit involved design issues found on all Explorers made through 2001, Schoville said.

Schoville said Ford declined to follow its engineers' suggestions to widen the Explorer's wheel track or to lower its center of gravity — costly changes that would make the vehicle more stable. Concern about costs also kept Ford from sufficiently reinforcing the Explorer's roof to protect passengers in a vehicle "they know is going to roll over," he said.

Lou Arnell, who also represented Buell-Wilson, said the punitive award was intended to "punish" Ford for selling a defective vehicle.

"I think their message to Ford is that it's not OK what they've done and continue to do by not recalling the Ford Explorers," he said.

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