State Appellate Court Affirms $38 Million Jury Verdict Where Evidence of Similar Occurrences Was Found

David Ford’s wife and son (the plaintiffs) filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. after David Ford died as a result of injuries he suffered while working as a contractor at Ford Motor’s Kansas City, Mo., assembly plant.  He was delivering vehicle seats to the plant when he was crushed between a stationary guard rail and a moving piece of machinery.

The Ford family alleged that Ford Motor was negligent for choosing not to remove a barricade with a dangerous pinch point, or to effectively warn visitors of its existence.

After an 8-day jury trial in the Circuit Court of Clay County, Mo., the jury found Ford Motor to have 95% comparative fault for Ford’s injuries and death. The jury signed a verdict in favor of the Ford family, the plaintiffs, in the amount of $38 million in compensatory damages. In addition, the jury awarded the plaintiffs an additional $38 million in aggravating circumstances damages, amounting to punitive damages.

Ford Motor appealed.  Among its arguments on appeal was that the trial court erred in “admitting evidence of the other incidents involving the equipment which caused Mr. Ford’s injuries.” However, the jury’s verdict and subsequent judgment was affirmed by the Missouri Appellate Court.

The court stated that “David Ford was killed when he was crushed by machinery in the Kansas City assembly plant operated by Ford Motor in Claycomo, where Ford Motor assembles its F-150 model pickup trucks. [H]e worked as a delivery driver for Walken Horse Transportation, a trucking company.”

“On arrival at the Claycomo plant, Walken Horse’s delivery trucks were backed into a loading dock, where pallets of seats were removed by a piece of equipment called ‘seat strippers’ and placed on carriers. A dangerous ‘pinch point’ existed where the carriers traveled across the gap from one lift table to the other.”

The court added, “While delivering the seats on Dec. 8, 2015, Mr. Ford entered the area between the seat stripper’s two conveyor lines to manually clear a fault or jam in the system. Mr. Ford stepped into the ‘pinch point’ between the lift tables. Mr. Ford was pinned against a stationary guard rail by one of the dual-pronged carriers crossing from one of the seat stripper’s lift table to the other.  As a result of the crushing injury, Mr. Ford suffered fractures of his sternum, multiple ribs, and multiple thoracic vertebrae.” Mr. Ford died after surgery.

“Evidence was . . . presented at trial that other persons had been injured at the pinch point where Mr. Ford suffered his fatal injury or had narrowly avoided injury. In 1996, just one year after the seat stripper was installed, the maintenance foreman of the plant, Stephen Bray, was caught in the pinch point and crushed causing a broken rib.”

“Less than six months before Mr. Ford’s accident, Timothy Van Vickle, a Ford Motor electrician, narrowly avoided an injury in the pinch point.” There was yet another incident that occurred in September 2015 about three months before Mr. Ford was killed.

As a case alleging negligence for a dangerous condition on business premises, Ford Motor’s notice of the dangerous condition was a key issue in determining its liability.  In order for plaintiffs to make a submissible case, they needed to show that Ford Motor had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition (the pinch point). See Breckenridge v. Meieroffer-Fleeman Funeral Home, Inc., 941 S.W. 2d 609, 611 (Mo. App. W.D. 1997).

Since the previous incidents had sufficient similarities to be admitted as similar occurrences because the incidents were of “like character,” occurred “under substantially the same circumstances,” and resulted “from the same cause as that alleged to have caused the accident in question,” the circuit court did not abuse its “wide discretion” in admitting evidence concerning the prior incidents. Peters v. General Motors Corp., 200 S.W. 3d 1, 10 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006) (citing Lopez v. Three Rivers Electric Co-op Inc., 26 S.W. 3d 151, 159 (Mo. 2000)).

Ford Motor argued that Ford was in fact a trespasser who was owed no duty at all. Ford Motor has indicated that it will appeal this decision to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Ford v. Ford Motor Co., No. WD 81832, 2019 (WL 2583264) (Mo. App. W.D. June 25, 2019).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling wrongful death lawsuits, construction injury cases, work injury lawsuits, truck accident cases, car accident lawsuits and bicycle accident cases for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Clarendon Hills, Hinsdale, Aurora, Joliet, Bolingbrook, Romeoville, South Holland, Blue Island, Inverness, Chicago (North Lawndale, Englewood, Austin, Lakeview, Lincoln Square, Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, Washington Park, Hegewisch), Palos Hills, Barrington, Palatine, Crestwood, Forest Park, Arlington Heights and Hoffman Estates, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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