Da Silva v. Ford Motor Company

February 2010

Jury Returns Defense Verdict of Ford Where Plaintiff has $8M in Special Damages. The plaintiff was a sympathetic victim – a young, single mother of three who was rendered a permanent paraplegic when her Ford Explorer was struck from behind by a another sport utility vehicle at a red light.

The plaintiff’s attorneys were willing to go all the way with this one, having filed their suit in Middlesex County, New Jersey, a venue of choice for plaintiffs in that state. “These lawyers were experienced, skilled and tenacious,” recalls James M. Campbell, counsel for the defense.

The plaintiff’s advocates argued that their client’s injuries were caused by a driver’s seat and a seat belt that had been defectively designed by Ford Motor Company, and they even proffered to the jury an alternative design supported by expert testimony.

But Mr. Campbell’s veteran trial team and their experts were not intimidated. They chose to go all the way, taking their case to a potentially difficult jury.

Working with their experts, the defense team explained to the jury not only that the vehicle was properly engineered and made, but that the only possible cause of the plaintiff’s unique thoracic injuries was her having improperly worn the shoulder belt portion of the seat belt behind her back at the time of the accident.

“You have to be careful how you take on a plaintiff in this condition, but we worked very carefully with an accident reconstructionist, a biomechanical expert and a seat belt design expert to show that she was just incorrect on the facts,” James Campbell says.

After a day of deliberations, the jury returned a unanimous defense verdict for Ford Motor Company.

The Appeal

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that she was entitled to a new trial because the judge should have admitted into evidence a police report, emergency responder report, and emergency room medical records, all of which contained notations of seat belt usage.

The plaintiff claimed these materials were admissible because they were business or public records subject to a hearsay exception and relied upon by experts.

Mr. Campbell’s position on behalf of Ford was that the records were properly excluded by the trial court because they contained unreliable hearsay statements from an unknown source that was not available for cross-examination. Mr. Campbell also demonstrated that existing case law did not cast a favorable light on these statements coming within exceptions to the hearsay rule, and he further demonstrated that any probative value to the statements was substantially outweighed by the prejudice to Ford.

James M. Campbell and Michelle Schaffer successfully briefed and argued the appeal, and the Appellate Division affirmed the defense verdict.