Ford Cleared on Crash That Left N.J. Cop Dead

     (CN) – Ford should not face product-liability claims related to a car crash in which a cop died while trying to pursue a suspect in a stolen patrol car, a federal judge ruled.
     Police officers in Newark, N.J., had apprehended William Rodriguez while trying to crack down on illegal drag racing in the early morning hours of March 3, 2007.
     After the officers reportedly cuffed Rodriguez’s hands behind his back and put him in the back seat of a squad car, Rodriguez wriggled his arms to the front of his body, climbed through an opening in the plexiglas partition and sped off in the patrol car.
     Sgt. Tommaso Popolizio pursued the suspect in a marked Ford Explorer SUV, which eventually collided with the stolen patrol car.
     The SUV rolled several times, and the 33-year-old Popolizio died from his injuries in the hospital.
     Officers later found Rodriguez hiding in some tall weeds near the crash site. He is serving 30 years after pleading guilty to murder and other charges.
     The executor of Popolizio’s estate sued Ford Motor Co. and the Olympia, Wash.-based Setina Manufacturing for product liability, and the parties were supposed to face a settlement-approval hearing in November 2012.
     U.S. District Judge Esther Salas instead granted the companies summary judgment on Wednesday, noting that Popolizio’s estate failed to appear at the hearing and missed the deadline to have its auto and biomedical experts, Peter Leiss and Eric Heiberg with Robson Forensic, deposed.
     “Setina, who manufactures the partition at issue, argues that expert testimony is required to prove any alleged defect because the average juror ‘does not have knowledge of [such] specialized equipment[;] [n]or does the average juror understand or have knowledge of the use to which police cruisers are put and how these uses impact the interior space of the vehicle and, concomitantly, the design of the specialized components,'” Salas wrote. “Moreover, the average juror ‘would not understand the usefulness of a partition or the desirability of its various features . . . [or] safety aspects of the partition or the likelihood that it could cause injury’; nor could an average juror ‘understand the feasibility of alternate design in light of the needs of a police officer in the course of his work.’ Similarly, defendant Ford asserts that plaintiff cannot make a prima facie case of liability without expert testimony in a ‘complex product liability lawsuit involving vehicle design, vehicle dynamics and biomechanics.’
     “The court agrees with defendants. The vehicle and partition at issue involve a specially designed component used in a police vehicle; if such a component was defective, an expert must opine on such a defect by producing an expert report. Without such a report, an average juror would be unable to make the requisite determination of culpability. Because plaintiff is barred from producing such a required report in this product liability action, plaintiff cannot proceed, as a matter of law, against defendants. As such, the court grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment.”

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