On April 3, 2014, Voncile and Melvin Hill got in their 2002 Ford Super Duty F-250 Crew Cab pickup truck and headed out to pick up a tractor part they needed for their farm. Driving on Georgia Highway 49 in Sumter County, one of the truck’s tires blew out, causing it to roll over into an embankment. As the vehicle overturned, the roof crumpled in, crushing and killing the couple inside. Melvin and Voncile were 74 and 62 years old respectively at the time of their deaths.
Kim and Adam Hill, the deceased couple’s sons, have spent the last several years fighting to hold Ford Motor Company liable for the negligence they believe resulted in the wrongful death of their parents. The lawsuit alleges the multi-billion-dollar auto manufacturing company was aware of a flaw in the design of Super Duty trucks that caused the roof to be dangerously unstable—yet kept the vehicles on the market despite compelling evidence of the hazards posed to consumers.
In August of this year, a jury in a Gwinnett County, Georgia courthouse reached a verdict in the case. The jury found Ford mostly liable for the accident, awarding the Hill brothers $24 million in compensatory damages and further adding $1.7 billion in punitive damages.
While compensatory damages were awarded to compensate the plaintiffs for the economic and noneconomic losses they suffered, the jury’s decision to award punitive damages was a statement that Ford’s actions were grossly, egregiously negligent and deserving of punishment. The high punitive damages award made it clear that the jury was convinced that Ford could have and should have done something to prevent the Hills’ deaths.
This $1.7 billion punitive damages verdict is the largest ever awarded in a Georgia court. But experts are skeptical about whether the award will survive the appeals process. The Ford Motor Company has made it clear that they will not accept the jury’s decision without a fight.
In the days following the verdict’s announcement, Ford company representatives declared in a public statement, “While our sympathies go out to the Hill family, we do not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence, and we plan to appeal.”
Although Ford’s appeal attempts could certainly impact the final award amount, this is not the only factor that may ultimately reduce the $1.7 billion punitive damages verdict to a much lower number. In addition to post-trial motions and appeals, laws such as Georgia’s split-recovery statute allocate 75% of the final punitive damages to the state. It is evident to most experts that the financial award the plaintiffs will eventually receive will be substantially lower than the one recently decided upon by the Georgia jury.
The lawsuit filed by Kim and Adam Hill is not the first of its kind the automaker has faced in recent years. Previous legal actions alleging a dangerous defect in the Ford company’s pickup truck roof design have resulted in confidential settlements of undisclosed amounts.
It’s estimated that about 5.2 million Ford trucks with a roof just like the Hills’ remain on the road today. Analysts and investigators have stated that the evidence proving Ford’s negligence on this issue is strong, and proof that the roof design is inherently hazardous is convincing. The roof’s failure to meet accepted safety standards led the plaintiffs’ lead attorney James E. Butler Jr. to argue that “you might as well drive a convertible.”
The product liability attorneys at Thomas Law Offices continue to remain well-informed of historic cases like this one that shape the landscape of defective product litigation. We use our experience and expertise in this critical area of legal practice to represent victims of corporate negligence nationwide.
If you have questions about a personal injury or fatality you or a loved one suffered due to a faulty product, we are ready to provide the answers you need. Contact our offices for a free case evaluation.