Because Ford Motor Co. is facing a huge $17.7 million judgment and potentially even more in punitive damages, it has agreed to settle a lawsuit with the Wheelers, a couple who sued the company in 2005 after a wreck left Mrs. Wheeler paralyzed. The agreement came after a Clayton County, Georgia jury ordered Ford to pay more than $16 million of the judgment to compensate for what the plaintiffs argued were defects in the 2002 Explorer SUV in which the woman was a passenger. Mrs. Wheeler was seated between her two grandchildren in the backseat of the Explorer when the car was hit head-on by a 1995 Eagle Talon. The driver of the Talon sustained a broken leg in the accident. Mrs. Wheeler, however, who was only restrained in the backseat by a lap belt, slammed forward and down as the rear seat latch failed and collapsed on her; she was left with substantial spinal cord damage and is now on a ventilator because she is paralyzed from the neck down.
The complaint from the Wheeler family states Ford’s design for both the rear seat latch and its decision to install a lap belt, as opposed to a three-point shoulder belt, constituted negligence. It also claimed the automaker should have warned the Wheelers and the general public of the dangers associated with the design in case the automobile was involved in an accident. Ford countered this argument with the fact that it adhered to or exceeded all government safety standards at that time. Further, Ford argued that the lap belt in the backseat is necessary to accommodate child safety seats and were, in some situations, safer for children who did not properly fit in the federally-mandated outboard lap/shoulder belts. They also said it was technologically infeasible to install a lap/shoulder belt in the middle section of the backseat.
In the trial, the Wheeler’s legal team presented evidence that Ford had known the dangers of the lap belt for thirty years before the accident and had delayed the installation of the lap/shoulder belts in order to save money. They showed documents dating back to the 1960s to show Ford had known of the dangers for decades and had done nothing about it. It was also shown that the crash tests for the Explorer demonstrated the seat collapsing exactly like what happened to Mrs. Wheeler. Several other similar accidents also helped illustrate the "recurring design flaw" in the Explorer.
On December 18, a jury found Ford liable for $16,444,761.to the Wheelers and also found the automaker responsible for paying punitive damages. Ford, however, agreed to settle the suit for a confidential sum before the punitive damages decision could be made, which may or may not be greater than the original jury award. The driver of the Talon was also deemed liable and asked to pay $1,271,640. Due to the confidentiality of this case, it is unclear how much Ford settled for.