New trial sought against Ford in trooper death

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 | 4:55 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY— An attorney for the widow of a Missouri patrolman killed in a fiery crash wants the state Supreme Court to order a new trial against Ford Motor Co.

The main point of contention Wednesday was whether a trial judge prejudiced jurors by limiting attorneys' statements about other fiery crashes involving Ford police cars that occurred after the fatal Missouri crash.

Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Newton was burned to death in May 2003 when a truck slammed into his Ford Crown Victoria police car on Interstate 70 in rural western Missouri. The car burst into flames with Newton trapped inside. A motorist he had stopped also suffered burns but was rescued from the patrol car's passenger seat.

A jury decided in 2005 that Ford was not liable for Newton's death or the injuries of motorist Michael Nolte but awarded $8.5 million of damages against the employer of the truck driver. The victims' families ultimately received about $500,000 each, minus attorneys' fees, because a pretrial settlement had capped the liability of the truck driver's employer.

The appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court pitted a pair of high-powered attorneys who previously were judicial colleagues. Former state Supreme Court Judge Edward "Chip" Robertson Jr. represented the crash victims. Former state Supreme Court Judge Ann Covington represented Ford.

Robertson said a trial judge's ruling limiting the bounds of closing arguments effectively gutted the plaintiff's case. Evidence previously offered by Ford noted that fiery police-car crashes continued to occur even after its vehicles had been fitted with a protective shield around the gas tank, as Newton's had been.

Robertson said trial attorneys had wanted to highlight that to argue that Ford should have moved the gas tanks elsewhere, instead of leaving the tanks on the rear side of the back axle.

When the truck crashed into Newton's police car, "the tank got hit, the tank got crushed, the tank got spun," Robertson told Supreme Court judges. "The gas got shot into the (passenger) compartment and the people burned. And if the tank had been somewhere else, this doesn't happen."

But Covington said Ford never claimed that the gas tank shield would prevent all fires, especially considering the more than 60 mph speed at which the truck hit Newton's car. Furthermore, the shield was not designed to address the risk of a gas tank filler pipe separating, as it did in Newton's accident, she said.

Covington said the judge correctly excluded arguments about six accidents that occurred after Newton's. She pointed to an agreed-upon jury instruction that limited the use of evidence about other crashes to a means of showing Ford was aware of the crashes, not as evidence of a defect. Because the crashes occurred after Newton's, it was irrelevant whether Ford knew of them for jurors to decided Newton's lawsuit, she said.

She told judges that plaintiffs' attorneys were trying to create a mountain out of molehill.

"This one little line of testimony has been blown up into something absolutely out-of-this-world extraordinary," Covington said in an interview after the court hearing.

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