Jury finds Ford at no fault in fatal truck accident

Thursday, January 29, 2009 | 8:10 p.m. CST; updated 10:20 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 29, 2009

COLUMBIA — A Boone County jury on Thursday found Ford Motor Company at no fault in a pickup truck rollover accident that killed a 26-year-old Slater man in 2003 and seriously injured his wife.

The jury found the other defendant in the case, the driver of the pickup truck that struck the Slater couple's vehicle, fully to blame for the crash on U.S. 63 south of Pinnacles Road.

Evidence was presented to jurors for 2 1/2 weeks, and they deliberated for a day before returning the verdict.

The jury awarded damages of $1 million to Heather Johnson, Ivan and Gladys Gessling, with Russell at 100 percent fault.  The jury awarded Johnson an additional $200,000 in personal injury damages, with Russell at 100 percent fault. Columbia attorney Jeffrey Parshallrepresented Russell.

Rhodes said his clients had sought a total of $6.3 million in damages.

According to the lawsuit, the accident occurred as the couple, Allen and Heather Gessling, drove north on the highway on Nov. 27, 2003. Charles W. Russell, who was also driving north, fell asleep at the wheel and struck the Gesslings' Ford F-250 pickup truck on its right rear. The Gesslings' truck skidded, hit the median and rolled over in the crash. The vehicle came to rest upside down with its roof flattened.

Both Allen and Heather Gessling were wearing seat belts.

An investigation found that Russell, of Columbia, was speeding when the crash occurred, according to the lawsuit.

Allen Gessling suffered massive head trauma and died at a hospital later that night. Heather Gessling suffered a skull fracture, bruises, joint dislocations and cuts.

In 2004, Heather Gessling and her in-laws, Ivan and Gladys Gessling of Marshall, filed a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company, alleging that the collapse of the roof of the Gesslings' truck contributed to his death. They also sued Russell, alleging that he was negligent in the crash.

“This was a very violent rollover,” said David R. Kelly, defense counsel for Ford Motor Company. “The driver (Russell) was speeding. He was driving at about 80 mph when he hit the truck.”

The jury found Ford Motor Company at zero fault in the accident on Thursday.

Ivan Gessling declined to comment on the jury's verdict. Heather Gessling, who has since remarried and is now Heather Johnson, could not be reached.

A spokeswoman for Ford Motor Company in Detroit extended the company's “heartfelt sympathy" to the Gessling family.  But she said the company agreed with the jury that Ford "was not to blame, and it was the other driver that caused the accident.”

The Gesslings' attorney, Randy Rhodes of Kansas City, said he was not ready to give up.

“We are obviously disappointed and disagree with the verdict,” Rhodes said. “We are going to ask the judge to reconsider and appeal. It is hard to tell what went wrong during the case.”

The lawsuit was tried before Judge Gary Oxenhandler and lasted two and a half weeks.

During the trial, Rhodes attempted to persuade the jury of the weakness of the Ford F-250 truck's roof through the testimony of an independent engineer. Rhodes hired safety engineer Steve Forrest from the SAVE company, which conducted its own drop-tests with a 1999 F-250, the same year of the Gesslings' truck.

“We took a produced 1999 F-250 dropped it upside down, and the roof crushed dramatically,” he said. “Then we took another 1999 F-250, but we reinforced the roof. When we dropped the truck, it bounced. All together, we did six drop-tests. We showed the jury a split-screen video of the production truck versus the reinforced one.”

Although Rhodes said the roof strength and pillar support played a big part in Allen Gessling's death, Kelly’s defense concentrated on the cause of the accident.

“The F-250 crew cab has the strongest roof of its class, but the collision was just very violent," Kelly said.

The Ford F-250 is one of the most popular trucks in the country with one of the weakest roofs, making it one of the least safe Ford trucks, Rhodes said.

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