Content comes from Daily Report News Article by Katherine Hayes Tucker
The punitive damages phase of a three-week product liability trial against Ford Motor Co. in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville has concluded with a jaw-dropping, history-making award: $1.7 billion.
That's what a Gwinnett County State Court jury said Friday Ford must pay in a case brought by Kim Hill, 55, the eldest son of Melvin and Voncile Hill, and his younger brother, Adam Hill, 52. They sued Ford, alleging the crushed roof on their parents' F-250 pickup truck was to blame for their deaths in 2014 when a tire blew out and caused them to roll off the road.
The Hills alleged the wreck was survivable but for a roof that was “defectively designed and dangerously weak.” Senior Judge Joseph Iannazzone instructed the jury to accept that claim as fact under a sanction Judge Shawn Bratton ordered after declaring a mistrial back in 2018 for what he ruled were multiple violations of court orders by Ford lawyers.
The Hills and their lawyers made the case not only about Melvin and Voncile Hill and their pickup but about all people driving similar trucks that are still on the road. They said the same roofs were on 5.2 million Super Duty F-250, F-350 and F-450 trucks made between 1999 and 2016.
“We could end all this if Ford would just take back every Ford truck with a roof like my parents',” Kim Hill said under cross-examination on the witness stand when the case was first tried in 2018. The Hills are from Macon County in South Georgia, where they have a family farm. The case was filed in Gwinnett because of the corporate location of one of the original defendants.
“The Hills wanted punitive damages,” lead plaintiff counsel Jim Butler of Butler Prather told the Daily Report in a phone interview Saturday while he drove from Atlanta to his office in Columbus.
Punitive damages awards have been rare in Georgia since the Legislature passed tort reform laws in 1987 capping them at $250,000—except for product-defect cases. But for product defects, the state collects 75%, which is in this case would be $1.275 billion. Whatever portion is ultimately paid to the plaintiffs is taxable, further limiting the value of a punitive damages judgment. And Ford has already said the company will appeal this one.
But this case was about a broader message. “A punitive damages award in this case heard round the world will save lives,” Butler told the jury in closing arguments.
Butler's legal team for the Hill retrial included Gerald Davidson Jr. of Mahaffey Pickens Tucker in Lawrenceville, Michael Terry and Laurie Taylor of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, Dan Philyaw of Butler Prather, plus paralegals Kim McCallister and Sarah Andrews and investigator Nick Giles, all of the Butler Prather firm.
“This is the largest verdict by far in Georgia history—eclipsing the previous verdict of $454 million in the Six Flags case 24 years ago,” Butler said. He, Davidson and Terry were all plaintiffs counsel in that case as well. They represented Six Flags in a business tort case against Time Warner, which Butler said ended in what is “believed to be the largest collected judgment in American history.”
If collected, this one would be 3½ times more.
In the first portion of plaintiffs' closing arguments, Davidson stressed the contentious nature of the litigation that has gone on for nearly eight years. “Why won't Ford do the right thing? They fight and they fight,” Davidson said. “They try to wear folks down.”
A Ford corporate representative said the company will challenge the award. “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,” Ford said in an email to the Daily Report Saturday.
Lead Ford defense counsel Bill Withrow Jr. of Troutman Pepper urged the jury in closing arguments not to award punitive damages. Withrow told the jury that's “why we are here” and “why we are fighting this.”
Withrow said a yes vote for punitive damages would mean the jury found Ford acted “willfully and wantonly” in designing the roof, which he said was not true.
“Ford acted in good faith,” Withrow's co-counsel Paul Malek of Huie, Fernambucq & Stewart in Birmingham, Alabama, told the jury in closing arguments. Malek reviewed evidence of Ford's investment in safety technology, which he said was far more than the $100 per truck Butler said Ford could have spent to add more metal and strengthen the Super Duty pickup roofs.
Ford's trial team also included Michael Boorman and Philip Henderson of Watson Spence in Atlanta and Michael Eady of Thompson Coe Cousins & Irons in Austin, Texas.
The Ford lawyers asked the jury not to award any money for pain and suffering, which they said was required under Georgia law to reach a finding that punitive damages could be awarded. They said the Hills didn't suffer, because they died suddenly.
Butler asked the jury to award $4 million for Mr. Hill's pain and suffering because the autopsy report suggested he lived 2 to 3 minutes after the crash and “suffocated.” Butler asked the jury to award $2 million for Mrs. Hill's pain and suffering, saying the autopsy report suggested she died within seconds of the roof crushing the passenger space of the truck.
The jury exceeded Butler's request on both counts, awarding $3.5 million for Mrs. Hill's pain and suffering and $4.5 million for Mr. Hill's pain and suffering.
The jury came in under Butler's request for the full value of the Hills' lives. He asked for $25 million each. The jury awarded $6 million for Mr. Hill, who was 74, and $10 million for Mrs. Hill, who was 62.
The total verdict before punitive damages was $24 million, plus $8,000 each for funeral expenses and $22,500 for the value of the truck. The jury apportioned 70% of the compensatory damages to Ford and 30% to Pep Boys, which already settled for $2 million, according to court records. The Hills sued Pep Boys, alleging the tire service put the wrong size tire on the truck leading to the blowout. Pep Boys settled for $2 million before the first trial.
“How much do you value life? How much do you value pain and suffering? And whether you think this killing has got to stop. That's what we're asking you,” Butler told the jury during closing arguments last week.
Butler presented evidence of 79 similar cases of injuries or deaths caused by crushed roofs in the same Ford truck. He said 10 of those took place after the mistrial of the case in 2018. More importantly as it turned out, that first phase of the trial ended Thursday with the jury saying yes to punitive damages, paving the way for the $1.7 billion verdict Friday.
Butler said he asked the jury not to award less than $1 billion in punitive damages. And he highlighted figures from Ford's public financial disclosures: $20 billion in cash on hand, $58 billion net worth, $18 billion in profits.
Asked if he was surprised by the award, Butler said, “No. The jurors took this case very seriously. They were writing down every number I said.”
Butler said the plaintiffs' team talked with jurors afterward. “They did not think Ford's arguments were believable,” he said. Those included the assertion that the roof was safe and that people die in rollovers because their bodies dive into the roof rather than because the roof crushes their heads.
The verdict is Butler's eighth one for more than $100 million. “This is the best case I ever tried,” he said, adding that was partly because the trial team worked so well together.
To read more about this case, several news articles are linked below about the verdict: