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On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the issue of whether Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers contain a fatal fuel-system design will return to Jackson County for a second trial. The court ruled in favor of businessman Michael Nolte and the family of Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Newton, after it found a judge’s errors gave Ford Motor Company an unfair advantage at trial in 2005.

On May 22, 2003, Michael Newton pulled Michael Nolte over for a traffic violation. As the two men were sitting in the cruiser awaiting Newton to finish writing the warning citation, the driver of a pickup truck rammed the cruiser from behind. This caused an immediate explosion that killed Newton, while Nolte was pulled from the vehicle with serious burns. Lawyers for the victims argued the fuel-system’s "defective" anti-spill valve and placement of the fuel tank behind the axle made the car dangerous. At trial, a jury found against the pickup driver’s employer, awarding $4 million to the Newton family, and $4.5 million to Nolte and his wife. The jury did not, however, rule that Ford had any blame in the matter, rejecting arguments that the cruiser had a design flaw. An attorney representing the Newton family insists that if the cruiser had an adequate fuel system, Michael would be alive today.

At the 2005 trial under examination, Jackson County Circuit Judge Charles E. Atwell ruled the plaintiff’s attorney could only introduce four previous incidents of gasoline tank explosions to show the company knew of the danger. Deposition testimony that was read to the jury, however, showed Ford knew of at least ten additional incidents of the tank exploding, four before the Missouri accident and six after. Even with this information, the judge barred plaintiff’s lawyers from discussing all eleven incidents. Atwell later acknowledged that this decision was wrong, although he claimed the outcome of the case would not have changed. The Missouri Supreme Court that a new trial was deserved.

Lawsuits have been filed in a number of states against Ford because of the Crown Victoria fuel systems. Additionally, some of those cases have involved police officers or state troopers who have been killed because of the way these fuel systems were designed, often involving a rear impact to the vehicle. I hope that justice is served in this Missouri case when the matter is re-tried.

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