For the first time, a Florida court has found validity in decades of complaints by drivers that faulty electronics can cause their cars to rocket out of control.
In doing so, a 5th Circuit Court judge has accused Ford Motor Co. of hiding or destroying records of its own engineers' concerns about sudden acceleration caused by electronics — instead blaming accidents on drivers inadvertently hitting the gas pedal.
If upheld, one attorney predicted thousands of old cases brought by drivers of runaway cars could be reopened.
The ruling this month by Senior Judge William Swigert reversed his jury's verdict on behalf of Ford 17 months ago. Swigert's circuit covers the Central Florida counties of Sumter, Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Marion. The trial was held in Bushnell.
The verdict coincidentally occurred at a time when thousands of drivers were complaining of being terrorized by runaway Toyotas.
The vehicle on trial in Bushnell was 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 made Peggy Stimpson, 61, a quadriplegic and put her in a power wheelchair that she now steers every day. On Tuesday, she said she couldn't comment.
In 2003, the Stimpsons said their Aerostar inexplicably accelerated out of their driveway, causing them to crash into a ditch. They blamed "electromagnetic interference" — errant electrical impulses — in the van's cruise control.
Ford blamed Ralph Stimpson for accidentally hitting the gas pedal while shifting into drive.
The jury took only two hours to decide in favor of Ford.
But in 46 pages of blistering criticism, Swigert said his 17-month review of the evidence and legal motions made him believe the jury was misled by Ford.
During the February 2010 trial, Ford's defense was based on misstatements about critical evidence and personal attacks on the Stimpsons' attorneys, Swigert said.
Ford followed "a calculated plan to interfere with the judicial system's ability to adjudicate a matter by improperly influencing the jury," he said.
The judge said Ford had concealed or destroyed its own service reports that identified "electromagnetic interference" as a possible cause of cruise control problems.
If those reports had been shared with federal safety authorities, he wrote, "the government would have discovered years ago that electronic failures in the cruise control system is a cause of sudden acceleration."
The judge ordered a new trial, but limited to consideration only of compensatory and punitive damages for the Stimpsons.
If his ruling is overturned on appeal, Swigert said the entire case should be retried.
On Tuesday, Ford stated it "strongly disagrees with Judge Swigert's decision, which overturned a unanimous jury verdict in Ford's favor. … Ford will appeal this erroneous ruling and seek to have the jury's decision reinstated."
Roy Glass of St. Petersburg, one of the attorneys for the Stimpsons, predicted similar complaints against Ford could be reopened if Swigert's ruling survives an appeal.
"But a celebration is premature," he said.
"It's been seven years since the accident left Peggy Stimpson a quadriplegic. The ruling isn't helping them at this juncture. Probably a lot more time will have to pass before they see justice out of this."
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.