After a monthlong trial, a jury began deliberations Friday in a lawsuit stemming from a 2003 traffic crash that killed a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper and seriously injured a Leawood man.
The Jackson County jury spent about three and a half hours deliberating before breaking for the weekend. Jurors will resume discussions Monday.
Leawood resident Michael Nolte and his wife are seeking more than $46 million in compensatory damages, plus additional punitive damages, from Ford Motor Co. in the crash. The Crown Victoria burst into flames when it was rear-ended by a truck on Interstate 70 near Odessa on May 22, 2003.
The crash killed Trooper Michael Newton, whose family reached a settlement with Ford before the trial.
Newton had pulled Nolte over to give him a warning about driving too long in the passing lane. They were sitting in the trooper’s car when a truck towing a trailer ran into the car while traveling about 65 mph. The truck driver later said he was reaching for some sunglasses when he crashed.
The car’s fuel filler tube was torn apart by the collision and the car burst into flames. Newton was killed. Bystanders pulled out Nolte, who suffered severe burns and continues to have physical pain and psychological problems as a result, according to testimony.
His attorney, Grant Davis, argued to jurors Friday that the Crown Victoria was defectively manufactured and that Ford was well aware of its propensity to catch fire in rear-end crashes.
Davis told jurors that Ford made a conscious effort to put “profit over safety.”
The root cause was the placement of the car’s gas tank behind the rear axle, he argued.
However, Jim Feeney, an attorney representing Ford, argued that no vehicle on the road could withstand being rear-ended by a truck and trailer weighing in excess of 13,000 pounds and traveling at that speed.
He said that if the Crown Victoria is to be judged defective after a crash of that magnitude, then “no other vehicle out there could be considered anything but defective.”
Feeney told jurors that no car design or fuel tank placement can be made completely leakproof or fireproof.
Feeney argued that the driver who ran into Newton’s patrol car was at fault and that Nolte’s attorneys were attempting to shift the responsibility to Ford.
The trial, which lasted all of February, is the second stemming from the crash.
After the first trial in 2005, a jury ruled in favor of Ford but found fault with the employer of the driver who crashed into Newton’s patrol car.
Lawyers for Nolte and the Newton family appealed the verdict pertaining to Ford, and in 2009 the Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The court found that the judge in the first trial should have allowed more testimony about other similar crashes involving Ford police cruisers.
Newton’s family subsequently reached a settlement with Ford and was not involved in the second trial. Details of the settlement were confidential.
After the crash, Nolte spent 65 days in a hospital burn unit. He has undergone skin grafts and surgeries and will suffer pain for the rest of his life, Davis said in outlining his suggestions for the amount of damages that should be awarded.
He suffers from post-traumatic stress, has difficulty sleeping because of the pain and has considered suicide, Davis told the jury.
It was a conscious decision by Ford to continue manufacturing and selling a product that the company knew to be defective, he argued.
“Ford has every right to make a profit,” Davis said Friday. “But they can’t do it by forgoing safety. If they’re willing to do that, they need to be held accountable.”
Before the 2003 crash in Missouri, police agencies in other states, including Florida and Arizona, raised concerns with Ford after similar fires broke out after rear-end crashes, according to testimony.
Davis argued that corrective measures taken by Ford as a result were just “Band-Aids” and showed that the company recognized there were problems with the vehicle design.
Feeney, however, said that Ford made efforts to address law enforcement concerns, including the testing of the vehicles that no other company did.
Those included successful tests of the vehicle in rear-end crashes of up to 75 mph, he said. But the vehicle that hit Newton’s car weighed more than four times the apparatus used in the testing.
He said it was crazy to attack a company for working to improve its products over time and then arguing that those improvements proved that the “old one must have been bad.”
The legal standard for awarding compensatory damages is finding that the car was defective and that defective condition directly caused or contributed to causing Nolte’s injuries. For awarding punitive damages, jurors have to find that Ford knew of the defective condition and was indifferent to or willfully disregarded the danger.
Davis argued that Ford decided against changing the gas tank location because it would have been too expensive.
Feeney countered that Ford did everything it could to ensure the vehicle was as safe as possible, but it was impossible for any manufacturer to design a vehicle for every possible contingency.
“Not all bad outcomes are because of bad design,” he said.