Maryland Auto Injury Update: State Supreme Court Reverses Appellate Court Ruling in Fatal Car Fire Case

Automobile and trucking-related accidents happen for a variety of reasons, not all of them connected with the driver. Although negligence or driver error is often cited as the cause of single- and multiple-vehicle collisions, there always exists the possibility of a faulty safety system, defective component or poor vehicle design that may have directly caused the accident, or contributed significantly to the event, and even the severity of the wreck.

As Baltimore auto accident attorneys and Maryland personal injury lawyers, I and my staff have the training and experience to represent car, truck and motorcycle crash victims and their families. Whatever the cause of a roadway collision, the potential for bodily injury is usually quite high, depending on the circumstances and traffic conditions at the time of the incident.

It goes without saying that injuries can range from minor to critical, sometimes even fatal considering the speed and orientation of the vehicles just before impact. Cuts, heavy bruising and abrasions are the least of the injuries that occupants of a sedan, SUV or minivan can receive. Increase the force of the collision and the potential for broken bones, compound fractures and internal injuries rise as well. In some cases, such as head-on wrecks, traumatic brain injury is a distinct possibility, as is spinal cord damage and lost limbs.

As we said, not every accident is the result of driver error or gross negligence. When a critical mechanical part of a car or truck fails the driver can lose control with little chance of steering or stopping the vehicle before a crash occurs. In some cases, failure of a safety component, such as a safety, seatbelt mounting or seat attachment hardware can make the effects of a crash worse, sometimes to the point of tipping the scales over to a fatal accident.

Not long ago, the Illinois Supreme Court overthrew a lower court ruling that affirmed a previous jury verdict in the case of Dora Mae Jablonski et al. v. Ford Motor Company et al., that of a fatal car crash and fire resulting from what the plaintiff’s legal team suggested was a defective design in a 1993 Lincoln Town Car. In the events leading up to the crash that precipitated the 2003 death of John Jablonski, the man and his wife were stopped in a construction zone on July 7th of that year when a Chevy Lumina traveling at highway speeds hit the couple’s Town Car from behind.

During the crash, the plaintiff’s attorneys showed that a large pipe wrench located in the trunk of the Lincoln penetrated the car body and also the fuel tank. The resulting fire, triggered by the crash killed the man and severely burned his wife, who remains permanently disfigured to this day.

The plaintiffs filed a nine-count complaint against Ford Motor Company and the driver of the Chevrolet that hit them. Following a settlement with the driver, the Plaintiff’s proceeded against Ford, arguing that Ford had a legal duty to use ordinary care to ensure the 1993 Lincoln Town Car was not unreasonably dangerous and defective.

The attorneys representing the Jablonskis alleged that when Ford designed and manufactured the ’93 Town Car, it was negligent and strictly liable for A) equipping the vehicle with a vertical, behind-the-axle fuel tank; B) failing to properly shield said fuel tank; and C) failing to warn consumers of the risk that contents within the vehicle’s trunk could end up puncturing the tank.

A jury awarded Dora Jablonski compensatory damages in the sum of $23 million and punitive damages totaling $15 million; it also awarded compensatory damages to family’s estate in excess of $5 million. Ford appealed the jury’s decision, and after the appellate court affirmed the award, the defense took the case before the state’s Supreme Court, which reversed the earlier decision.

The Court’s decision to overturn was based on the application of the duty analysis used in negligent-product-design cases, which encompasses what is known as a risk-utility balancing test. The Court determined that the plaintiffs presented insufficient evidence to show that Ford Motor Company breached its duty of reasonable care on the three separate theories of negligent design.

By considering a balance of factors involving foreseeable risks and utility, the Court’s decision indicated that the plaintiffs had failed to show that Ford’s conduct was unreasonable or that the company acted unreasonably by failing to warn consumers about the possibility of trunk contents puncturing the tank. As well, it was shown that there was no evidence that any feasible shield protecting the tank could have prevented the plaintiffs’ injuries and death.

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