Ford faces new trial in Missouri trooper's death

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | 7:32 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A man injured in a fiery crash and the widow of a state trooper killed in the same accident will get another chance to make their case against Ford Motor Co.

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a new trial in the case, which alleges fuel-system flaws caused a Ford Crown Victoria patrol car to explode with the victims in it after it was hit by a truck in 2003.

"On behalf of the family, we are extremely happy and look forward to getting this case back in front of a jury," said Kent Emison, who represented Trooper Michael Newton's widow, Shonnie Newton, at trial. "We're convinced that Trooper Newton would be alive today if there had been a safe fuel system on the patrol car."

Ford attorney Doug Lampe said the company respects the Missouri Supreme Court ruling. He said another trial will give Ford "another opportunity to defend the vehicle" and employee decisions related to the car.

The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred when not allowing the plaintiffs' attorneys to make statements about similar accidents that came later. Those fiery accidents also involved fuel leaks from Ford Crown Victoria police cars. Evidence about the six incidents had been inadvertently introduced into evidence by Ford attorneys.

"Evidence was admitted mistakenly in the first trial, but neither side was allowed to exploit or argue that evidence," Lampe said. "And it's unlikely, in Ford's view, that the jury was ever even aware of its omission and, therefore, could not have decided the case based on that evidence."

The trial court did allow arguments related to four accidents that occurred before the fatal one involving the trooper. Records show the court ruled that evidence of the other accidents was admissible "to show that Ford had notice of the continued danger of gasoline leakage during rear-impact collisions from its Crown Victoria patrol cars equipped with shield upgrade kits."

Trooper Newton burned to death in May 2003 when a truck slammed into his patrol car, which was pulled onto the shoulder of Interstate 70 in rural western Missouri. A motorist he had stopped on suspicion of a traffic violation was sitting in the patrol car's passenger seat and suffered serious injuries but survived.

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 truck driver's employer. Newton's widow was awarded $4 million in damages, and Nolte and his wife $4.5 million.

The families ultimately received about $500,000 each, minus attorneys' fees, because a pretrial settlement had capped the liability of the truck driver's employer.

Attorney Edward "Chip" Robertson Jr., a former state Supreme Court judge who represented the plaintiffs in their appeal, said he and others felt the trial was mishandled as it related to Ford's role.

During the appeal, Robertson said the plaintiffs' trial attorneys had wanted to highlight the fact that Ford police car crashes continued to occur after the vehicles had been fitted with a protective shield around the gas tank, as the trooper's had been. They wanted to argue that Ford should have moved the gas tanks elsewhere, instead of leaving the tanks on the rear side of the back axle.

"The Supreme Court's ruling is gratifying, in that it suggests that it agrees that the trial wasn't fair for the trooper and his family and to Mr. Nolte," Robertson said Tuesday. "So we're going to get a chance to have a fair trial."

The case now goes back to Jackson County Circuit Court for a new trial date, he said.


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