Stimpsons vs. Ford is being tried in the Sumter County Historical Courthouse, a 1914 brick relic with drafty windows and creaky floors. It lies by the tracks in Bushnell, a town known for an 1835 Indian massacre. A passing train blasts its horn in the afternoon at 4:15. When the judge hears it, he reminds the lawyers to start wrapping up.
The old courthouse with a train for an alarm clock is hosting a highly technical, six-years-in-the-making "sudden unintended acceleration" lawsuit. In recent weeks, that's a TV news term for thousands of Toyotas whose drivers say they've been hurt or terrorized by their cars suddenly accelerating to full throttle for no reason.
The vehicle on trial in Bushnell is a 1991 Ford Aerostar, a clunker with 159,000 miles on it that cost Ralph and Peggy Stimpson $300 in 1999. It's the vehicle that put Peggy Stimpson, 61, in the power wheelchair that she now steers every day across the courtroom's wood floor.
But the case offers many clues as to what future litigation against Toyota will look like. It suggests that the future lawsuits, costing millions and taking years to litigate, will end up frustratingly inconclusive.
Those future lawsuits will be about the global carmaking industry's infatuation with electronics technology.
But lawsuit by lawsuit, each will also be about one car, one driver.
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On a cold, rainy night on Oct. 28, 2003, Peggy Stimpson and her husband got into their Aerostar in a carport beside their rural cottage in Bushnell.
The Aerostar faced the driveway. When Ralph Stimpson, then 58, put the van in gear, it burned rubber out of the carport, crossed the road, plowed into a ditch and struck a telephone pole. The passenger door flung open. Peggy Stimpson fell into the ditch. She broke her neck and was left paralyzed from the chest down.
For the past three weeks in the Sumter County Historical Courthouse, jurors have heard two possible reasons how that happened.
The one they've heard from the Stimpsons' lawyers is that the van's cruise control was taken over by a mysterious force called "electromagnetic interference." They say that caused the Aerostar to rocket out of the carport, even while Ralph Stimpson stood helplessly on the brakes. The lawyers accuse Ford of a vast conspiracy in the 1980s to cover up cruise control systems infected with those electromagnetics.
In a florid memo to the court, Stimpsons' lawyers portray Ford as a "brazenly lawless" corporate monster "sublimely untroubled by scruples."
Ford's lawyers offered a much simpler explanation for the crash:
Ralph Stimpson got mixed up. He hit the gas instead of the brake.
Cases like the runaway Aerostar, and even today's runaway Toyotas, have roots in the early 1980s when carmakers entered the technology age and began replacing simple mechanics with complex electronics. Cruise control was one of the first devices.
At the same time, drivers began complaining to dealerships about runaway cars. They described cars that accelerated spontaneously, that didn't respond to brakes. Dealership mechanics would check the cars, test the cruise control, and find nothing wrong. That gave rise to theories about electromagnetic interference. Maybe some stray electrical signal was setting off the cruise control. Maybe the errant signal came from some other part of the car. Maybe it left no trace.
Electromagnetic interference is a real phenomenon. It's why airlines ask passengers to turn off their cell phones and laptops during takeoffs and landings. But no one has ever been able to make electromagnetic interference turn a car into a runaway under test conditions.
In the 1980s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating cars from 20 manufacturers, including Ford. In 1986, 60 Minutes aired an expose of the Audi 5000, called Out of Control. Sales of Audis tanked.
Later, a mechanic said he had rigged the test car for 60 Minutes. No one could make the cruise control on an Audi or any other car go electromagnetically haywire on cue for TV cameras. The highway safety agency concluded that most of the sudden-acceleration accidents were caused by drivers mistakenly hitting the gas.
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Out of that, the Stimpsons' legal team — Roy Glass from St. Petersburg and Thomas Murray and Molly O'Neill from Sandusky, Ohio — wove a dark tale of deception by Ford.
They told the jury that Ford's own engineers had raised the possibility of electromagnetic interference during investigations in the 1980s. They accused Ford of dismissing those concerns and destroying paperwork that proved them right. They called an accident reconstruction expert who testified he could see no explanation other than electromagnetic interference for the Stimpson crash.
For two weeks, they showered the jury with depictions of a car company — an entire car industry — enamored of new technologies they didn't fully understand.
They painted a picture of Ralph Stimpson, his foot pressed on the brake, battling electromagnetic beams for control over his runaway Aerostar.
• • •
Ford had its turn. It had three lawyers, too — John Randolph Bibb from Nashville and Scott Richman and Alina Alonso from Orlando. They called two accident reconstruction experts to testify.
One came with a video. It showed a series of accident re-enactments, using a 1991 Aerostar like the Stimpsons'.
In one re-enactment, the camera was trained on a mechanical piece under the engine that disabled the cruise control each time the brake was applied. It was not electronic. It shut down the cruise control by simply opening a valve to the vacuum needed to make the cruise control work.
In another re-enactment, it showed the cruise control rigged to stay at full throttle even with the brake on. At full throttle, the brake held. The van barely moved.
They then showed calculations that suggested the van had stopped accelerating before it reached the ditch across the road.
Their conclusion: Ralph Stimpson had accidentally hit the gas in the carport, then realized his mistake as he crossed the road, but it was too late.
After just those two witnesses, the Ford team rested.
The Stimpson lawyers went ballistic. They had expected Ford to produce its own experts to dispute electromagnetic interference and corporate wrongdoing. They had hoped to expose the coverup by grilling the Ford experts on cross-examination.
Attorney Murray, red-faced, shaking his finger at the Ford lawyers, accused them of hoodwinking him by resting their case and committing "a fraud on the court."
Bibb, the Ford attorney from Nashville, said he had watched the jurors watch the videos. He was sure he'd won them over.
He said he wouldn't help the Stimpson lawyers write their "Russian novel."
• • •
It's been seven years since the accident. The lawsuit is 6 years old. The jury is expected to get the case early in the week. Peggy Stimpson was asked how it felt, now that the whole ordeal is nearly over.
"I hope it is," she said quietly, "but I doubt it."
Her lawyer found an owners manual for power wheelchairs like hers. It included a safety warning:
Electromagnetic interference, it said, could cause her wheelchair to spontaneously release the brakes and take off.
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.