Jury sides with Ford in fiery crash involving trooper’s car on I-70

Jury agrees with automaker that car’s design was not to blame in accident that killed trooper and injured plaintiff.

03/06/2012 9:43 AM

05/16/2014 6:11 PM

Ford Motor Co. does not owe damages to a Leawood man severely burned in a 2003 traffic crash, a Jackson County jury decided Monday.

The verdict came after a monthlong trial that stemmed from a crash that killed a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper and seriously injured Michael Nolte.

The trooper, Michael Newton, and Nolte were sitting in the trooper’s Crown Victoria patrol car along Interstate 70 when it was struck from behind by a truck on May 22, 2003. After the patrol car burst into flames, witnesses pulled Nolte from the wreckage.

A 2005 trial also resulted in a verdict in favor of Ford, but the Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new trial on appeal. The trooper’s family reached a confidential settlement with Ford before this trial.

Attorneys for Nolte, 57, and his wife asked this jury for more than $46 million in compensatory damages.

Jurors deliberated for about eight hours on Friday and Monday before returning the verdict. They left the courthouse without commenting to the media.

“While we are disappointed in the outcome, we still appreciate the hard work of the jury,” Grant Davis, one of the lawyers who represented the Noltes, said Monday.

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 at 65 mph ran into the car. The truck driver later said he was reaching for some sunglasses when he crashed.

The collision tore the car’s fuel filler tube, and the car burst into flames. Nolte suffered severe burns, spent 65 days in a hospital burn unit and has undergone skin grafts and surgeries. He will suffer pain for the rest of his life, suffers from post-traumatic stress, has difficulty sleeping because of the pain and has considered suicide, Davis told the jury.

“While Ford’s sympathies go out to the Nolte family, we agree with the jury that Ford should not be blamed for Mr. Nolte’s injuries,” said Jim Feeney, an attorney who represented Ford. “The true cause of this accident was the distracted driver of the 13,000-pound vehicle that ran into the parked police interceptor at 65 mph.”

The jury in the first trial in 2005 came to the same conclusion.

That jury found in favor of Ford but awarded $8.5 million in damages to be paid by the truck driver’s employer. A pre-trial agreement had capped the company’s liability at $1 million covered by its insurance.

Davis declined to comment on whether Monday’s verdict would be appealed.

“Even though Ford prevailed, we hope Ford takes the opportunity to improve its product,” he said.

During closing arguments on Friday, Davis told jurors that the Crown Victoria was defectively manufactured and that Ford was well aware of its propensity to catch fire in rear-end crashes. Davis argued that Ford put “profit over safety” by continuing to produce the vehicles without addressing what he said was the “root cause” of the fire — the placement of the car’s gas tank behind the rear axle.

However, Feeney 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.

“The Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor was designed to the highest rear-impact standards of any vehicle in the world,” he said after Monday’s verdict. “Ford has done all that is reasonable to reduce the risk of fire in its products, but no gas-powered vehicle is fireproof in such extreme collisions.”

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