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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ford Settlement Tied to Texas Court Corruption

(CN) - A jury properly invalidated a $3 million settlement with Ford that may have been part of a massive judicial extortion scheme, the Texas Supreme Court ruled.

Ford had reached the settlement in a 2004 product-liability complaint it faced related to the alleged rollover of a Ford Explorer owned by Ezequiel Castillo.

Jurors later testified that Cynthia Cruz Cortez had been was "very interested" in being selected foreperson, and was an outlier in votes that favored Ford.

Though Castillo's attorney Mark Cantu initially wanted $15 million to settle, the parties were in the neighborhood of $1.5 million to $2 million deal during the jury's deliberations.

Ford attorney Pete Tassie said Cantu repeatedly mentioned increasing his settlement demand to $3 million if the jury sent a note about damages.

That unusually specific remark proved prophetic when the presiding judge, Abel Limas, received a note from the jury a day later, asking, "What is the maximum amount that can be awarded?"

The parties agreed later in the day to settle the case for $3 million.

Cortez was the only juror who left the courthouse without speaking to Ford. Several jurors stated in affidavits that they were not talking about damages before Cortez sent the note to the judge.

When Ford refused to pay the $3 million settlement, Castillo fired back with a lawsuit for breach of contract.

Limas presided over these proceedings as well and ruled for Castillo after barring Ford from introducing the jurors' affidavits into evidence.

The ruling did not stand, however, as Limas soon pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from attorneys in exchange for favorable rulings. Limas was given a 72-month sentence, and state Rep. Jim Solis is serving nearly four years in prison for his role as a middleman in the scheme.

When the Texas Supreme Court ordered a new trial that considered Ford's excluded evidence, several jurors testified that Cortez kept trying to bring up the issue of damages and that she sent the note to the judge over their objections.

Cortez testified that she did not remember why she sent the note. Though she denied having spoken to plaintiffs' counsel, phone records showed a Sept. 21, 2004, call to the private cellphone of Rep. Solis.

Cortez said the records must have belonged to someone else with her name.

A jury soon invalidated the settlement agreement for fraudulent inducement and mutual mistake, but the Texas Court of Appeals found the evidence insufficient to support that finding.

In a replacement opinion published on Oct. 3, the Texas Supreme Court found "enough circumstantial evidence to establish a pattern - a pattern that reasonably implicates Cantu in Cortez's fraudulent scheme to send the note."

"Because the note implies material statements that were false, we conclude that some evidence exists of the first element of fraudulent inducement," the court wrote.

Of note to the court was that Cortez missed court on the second full day of jury deliberations, claiming that she had been in the hospital all night with a sick child.

Ford had been on the brink of victory, but Cortez's absence led Judge Limas to suspend proceedings for the day, allowing settlement talks to resume.

At the contract trial, meanwhile, Cortez could not recall what injury or illness to her child kept her at the hospital all night.

Though Cantu has denied making the prediction about the jury note, the court found the evidence of his collusion mighty.

"Having found evidence that Cortez colluded with Cantu, who unquestionably knew that jury notes would be shown to Ford's attorneys, we necessarily find evidence of the third element - that Cortez sent the fraudulent note with the intent that Ford rely on it," the ruling states.

On remand, the appeals court must review "Castillo's factual sufficiency challenge."

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