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Court Tosses $43 Million Award Against Ford

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (CN) - Citing insufficient evidence, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed a $43 million award against Ford Motor Co. for fuel tank explosions during accidents.

A Madison County jury in 2005 awarded Dora Mae Jablonski $28 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages for the 2003 collision in which Jablonski and her husband, John, were rear-ended at high speed in a construction zone.

The impact caused a pipe wrench in the Jablonskis' trunk to penetrate the trunk and puncture the fuel tank of their 1993 Lincoln Town Car, which burst into flames. John Jablonski was killed and his wife suffered severe burns.

Jablonski claimed Ford negligently designed the car and failed to warn buyers of the risk.

Ford claimed that moving the tank forward would require elimination of rear-wheel drive and body-on-frame construction, making it a totally different car.

An appeals court upheld the award, but the state supreme court unanimously found in favor of Ford.

Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote that Ford's fuel tank design in 1993 met or exceeded all standards set by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

"Given that Ford complied with, and even exceeded, the industry standard set for fuel system integrity, plaintiffs were required to come forward with evidence that despite Ford's compliance, its conduct was otherwise unreasonable because the foreseeable risk posed by the vertical-behind-the-axle design of the fuel tank at the time of manufacture outweighed its utility," Theis wrote.

While the plaintiff's expert believed that placing the fuel tank in front of the axle was safer, the expert acknowledged that the structure and design of a particular vehicle are also important for fuel system integrity.

"The Lincoln Town Car was a heavy-duty six-passenger vehicle, with a deep-well trunk, a body-on-frame construction, which aided in the absorption of energy in a collision, and a solid rear axle, which was less susceptible to damage and less expensive to repair than an independent rear suspension," Theis wrote.

Theis wrote that moving the tank would present equal or greater risk.

In reversing, the Illinois Supreme Court found that Madison County Judge Andy Matoesian allowed Jablonski's lawyer, Brad Lakin, to amend the complaint after trial, so it would match the verdict.

The supreme court also rejected four theories that jurors and the appellate court accepted.

The last amended complaint claimed Ford failed to tell the Jablonskis about a trunk pack, shield kit and recommendations it had provided to police to prevent fuel tank ruptures in collisions.

"In sum, after balancing the foreseeable risks and utility factors, plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that at the time of manufacture, Ford's conduct was unreasonable or that it had acted unreasonably in failing to warn about the risk of trunk contents puncturing the tank," Theis wrote. "It complied with the industry standard for fuel system integrity, it exceeded that standard by its own heightened crash-testing standards, other manufacturers in the industry continued to produce vehicles with aft-of-axle fuel tanks, and despite the clear gravity of the injury, the risk was extremely remote. Additionally, there was no evidence of a feasible shield that would have prevented the injury in this case. Accordingly, there was insufficient evidence to justify the submission of plaintiffs' first three claims of negligence to the jury."

Justices Charles E. Freeman, Rita B. Garman, Lloyd A. Karmeier and Anne M. Burke concurred. Justices Thomas L. Kilbride and Robert R. Thomas did not take part in the decision.

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