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Justices order new trial to determine fault in Ford rollover suit

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The Indiana Supreme Court has reversed the allocation of fault in a wrongful death action against Ford Motor Co. and other defendants, finding the evidence didn’t support allocating fault to the manufacturer of the seatbelt assembly and a nonparty. The high court was also faced with the challenge of allocating fault among the remaining parties.

In TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc., and Ford Motor Company v. Sally J. Moore, personal representative of the estate of Daniel A. Moore, deceased, No. 73S05-0909-CV-404, the Supreme Court was faced with appeals from defendants Ford, and TRW Vehicle Safety Systems challenging the jury verdict and adverse judgment, as well as from plaintiff Sally J. Moore, whose husband Daniel died after he was thrown from his Ford Explorer through the sunroof during a rollover after a tire failure. Moore was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash. Sally Moore claimed there was insufficient evidence to support apportioning a portion of fault to nonparty Goodyear Tire.

Sally Moore brought a wrongful death action, and the jury found total damages to be $25 million and allocated fault to Moore at 33 percent; Ford at 31 percent; nonparty Goodyear at 31 percent; and TRW at 5 percent. Judgments were entered against Ford for $7.75 million and against TRW for $1.25 million.

The four justices ruled against Ford in all of its claims on appeal, and ruled in favor on TRW’s appeal regarding the denial of its motion for judgment on the evidence. The plaintiff claimed TRW was liable for negligent design of the seatbelt assembly. The evidence shows that TRW made the seatbelt assembly in compliance with Ford’s design specifications, wrote Justice Brent Dickson. There is no evidence showing TRW failed to exercise reasonable care in designing the assembly, so the motion for judgment on the evidence should have been granted. The justices vacated the judgment and allocation of 5 percent fault to TRW.

They also ordered a reduction in damages awarded attributable to the Moores’ son’s projected damages for a life span of 37.1 years. The jury should have only considered the time between the age the son was when his father died until his 18th birthday, so the son’s portion of the total damages determination should have been reduced by 78 percent, wrote Justice Dickson. They ordered a new trial subject to remittitur, wherein Sally Moore may instead accept a determination of total damages, before allocation of comparative fault for a sum of nearly $16 million.

The justices also granted Sally Moore’s cross-appeal because there wasn’t enough evidence to support allocating fault to Goodyear. But then the justices were left with the task of reassigning fault percentages to the remaining parties – Ford and Moore – a process that isn’t dictated by statute or caselaw. Indiana Appellate Rule 66 provides a broad range of options, and the justices decided in the interest of justice to order a new trial to allocate fault. They remanded on the issues of comparative fault and the allocation between Ford and Moore. If the fault of Moore doesn’t exceed that of Ford, the resulting fault allocations shall be applied to the total damages determined in this case, wrote Justice Dickson.
 

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  1. Indianapolis Bar Association President John Trimble and I are on the same page, but it is a very large page with plenty of room for others to join us. As my final Res Gestae article will express in more detail in a few days, the Great Recession hastened a fundamental and permanent sea change for the global legal service profession. Every state bar is facing the same existential questions that thrust the medical profession into national healthcare reform debates. The bench, bar, and law schools must comprehensively reconsider how we define the practice of law and what it means to access justice. If the three principals of the legal service profession do not recast the vision of their roles and responsibilities soon, the marketplace will dictate those roles and responsibilities without regard for the public interests that the legal profession professes to serve.

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