Court rules evidence in Ford case admissible, upholds $8M verdict

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The Superior Court has upheld an $8.75 million verdict in a products liability case out of Allegheny County in which a man was killed by his own tow truck, ruling that evidence of design changes and reports of prior incidents introduced by the plaintiff were, in fact, admissible to the jury.

Writing for a 2-1 majority, Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen ruled that evidence of design changes instituted by the defendant manufacturer in the case was correctly presented to the jury because the changes were developed before the date of the accident.

Further, Judge Allen ruled, the reports of prior incidents may have constituted inadmissible hearsay, but the defendants failed to object to the reports during trial and failed to request a limiting instruction to the jury, thus waiving their right to appeal on the issue.

In the case, Blumer v. Ford Motor Co., plaintiff Jennette M. Blumer claimed that, in 2004, her husband, tow truck driver Joseph Blumer, responded to a disabled vehicle call requiring roadside assistance along Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh.

In trying to attach the disabled pick-up to the truck, Mr. Blumer was run over by his own truck, a Ford F-350.

Judge Jacqueline O. Shogan, who filed a concurring and dissenting opinion in the case, agreed with the majority on the issue of the design change evidence.

She departed from the majority, however, when it came to addressing the issue of the reports of prior incidents.

According to Judge Shogan, the manufacturer in the case, Ford Motor Co., had filed a motion to exclude evidence of other lawsuits and reports of prior incidents.

The trial court ruled in its favor with regard to the lawsuits, but chose to address the admissibility of reports "as they come," Judge Shogan wrote. Ford later requested a limiting jury instruction, which was ultimately not provided.

Those steps, Judge Shogan believed, were enough to preserve Ford's claims and constituted grounds to grant a new trial.

The plaintiff's attorney in the case, Shanin Specter of Kline & Specter in Philadelphia, said he expects the car company to pursue an appeal.

Mr. Specter said the appellate argument was made by colleague Charles "Chip" Becker, who argued that the prior report documents introduced by the plaintiffs into evidence at trial were similar enough to that which happened in Blumer, and that the plaintiff's decision to proceed under a malfunction theory further allowed their admittance.

Under that theory, Mr. Specter said, the plaintiffs only had to prove that there was a malfunction with the parking brake -- not what the specific cause was.

"The Blumer brake failed because of a large number of design flaws in the brake that, acting together, permitted it to fail," Mr. Specter said. "You couldn't point to one aspect of the product design."

An Allegheny County jury awarded Blumer's estate $8.75 million, plus delay damages, after the plaintiffs used the reports of prior incidents and evidence of design changes to argue that Ford knew as early as July 2000 that the parking brake system on Mr. Blumer's truck, which was used in all of its F-series vehicles between 1999 and 2004, was faulty.

Afterward, Ford sought a new trial, arguing that the court erred in its evidentiary rulings.

The majority, though, disagreed.


Leo Strupczewski: lstrupczewski@alm.com or 215-557-2315. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com .


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