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Record Punitive Damage Award Handed Down by Gwinnett County Jury

A Georgia jury returned a $1.7 billion punitive damage verdict against Ford, finding that the company wantonly sold millions of “Super Duty” models with defectively weak roofs. The punitive damage award followed a $24 million compensatory damage verdict in favor of a couple who died in a rollover accident while driving their Ford truck.

The accident occurred in 2014 when a tire blew out and caused the couple’s truck to roll off the road. Both suffered life-ending injuries when the roof caved in and “crushed” the couple. The decedents’ children subsequently sued Ford for design defect, alleging that their parents would have survived the crash if the truck’s roof was stronger.

This is the first billion-dollar punitive award to be issued in Georgia’s history and is an almost fourfold increase on the previous state record for punitive damages: $457 million.

The eye-popping $1.7 billion punitive damages award is well outside the constitutionally-permissible ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages. The 71:1 ratio violates US Supreme Court precedent set in State Farm v. Campbell. The justices have held that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages” satisfy due process and that a 1:1 ratio may be the upper bound in cases where the compensatory damages are “substantial”. A punitive damage award that is 71 times larger than the compensatory award clearly conflicts with this logic, especially when the compensatory award is already a “substantial” $24 million.

While representatives for Ford noted that “our sympathies go out to” the deceased couple’s family, the company does “not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence”. Attorneys for Ford commented that it was “hard to hear” that the jury found the company “acted willfully” when the evidence presented at trial suggested the opposite. Ford will appeal the verdict.

The case first went to trial in 2018 but ended in a mistrial because a Ford expert witness testified to certain facts after being specifically directed not to do so by the trial judge. The trial court sanctioned Ford for this “misconduct”, forcing the company to concede that the roof on the plaintiff’s truck was defectively designed and dangerously weak. Ford also had to stipulate that it was foreseeable that the defective roofs would cause injury in an accident.

The trial judge later concluded that Ford was liable for the design defect as a matter of law and ordered a second trial on damages alone. The second trial concluded this month with a jury from Gwinnett County (just north-east of Atlanta) awarding the deceased couple $24 million in compensatory damages, including $8 million for their pain and suffering. The jury also found that punitive damages were appropriate in the amount of $1.7billion.

If the verdict is upheld, the real winner will be the state of Georgia, who stands to collect 75% of any punitive damages issued in product liability cases. Thus, the state government would be able to raise $1.28 billion — over 2% of the annual state budget — from a single verdict in a lawsuit to which the state was not a party.

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