Big Clash between the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Inc. and the Florida Justice Association!

In Ford Motor Company v. Stimpson the Fifth District took up a case involving a claimed defect and fraud on the court. There was a trial court Plaintiff who was seriously injured. The Plaintiff’s theory was that her 1991 Ford Aerostar van’s cruise control system cruise control system was defectively designed and built because the system was susceptible to allowing electromagnetic interference to cause a malfunction that would unexpectedly open the throttle without the driver pressing on the gas pedal causing sudden acceleration from a standstill position. She said Ford was aware of, but did nothing to address, the defect.

How did a 1991 van become the subject of a twenty-first century trial? In order to overcome Florida’s products liability statute of repose, the Stimpsons invoked the statutory provision which tolls the repose period for any time during which the manufacturer actively conceals the defect. §95.031(2)(d), Fla. Stat. (2003). Ford defended. The Plaintiff, it said, caused the accident was caused by pedal misapplication: stepping on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. The Plaintiff tried to strike the defenses because of fraud, but, the court reserved ruling.

The case proceeded to a four-week trial. The jury returned a special verdict in
favor of Ford, finding that Ford did not place the 1991 Ford Aerostar on the market with a defect that was the legal cause of Peggy Stimpson’s injury, and that there was no negligence on the part of Ford that was a legal cause of Peggy Stimpson’s injury. The trial court entered judgment on the verdict.

The Stimpsons filed motions seeking alternative forms of post-judgment relief,
including rule 1.540(b)(3) relief from judgment and a new trial. They sought relief based primarily on the theory that Ford committed fraud on the court by presenting its pedal misapplication defense because Ford knew, since the early 1980s, that van’s cruise control system was defective. Ford responded there could be no finding of fraud on the court because all of the evidence regarding the Plaintiff’s concealment theory was presented to the jury on the statute of repose issue, and because the husband testified at trial that he may have touched the gas pedal.

The trial court conducted extensive post-judgment hearings. Then granted the Stimpsons relief based on its finding that Ford committed fraud on the court. The court struck Ford’s answer and affirmative defenses, entered judgment on liability in favor of the Stimpsons, and ordered a trial on the issue of damages. The court also entered an alternative ruling conditionally granting the Stimpsons a new trial based upon findings both of fundamental error and that the jury’s verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Not surprisingly, Ford challenged these rulings in the District Court.

The court found that Ford had destroyed reports that proved the cruise control was defective. The District Court disagreed about the content of the destroyed reports. But, more importantly, the reports were all destroyed long before the accident occurred. “Even if Ford did improperly dispose of its SIRs from the 1980s through 2002, such action would not constitute fraud on the court in this matter because, at the time of Ford’s alleged improper action, the Stimpsons’ accident had not yet taken place, this lawsuit had not yet been filed, there was no matter pending between the parties, and there was no evidence showing that the instant action was foreseeable by Ford.” Caselaw, said the court, only gives a party the duty to preserve evidence if there is knowledge that a suit may occur.

The trial court next concluded that Ford committed fraud on the court by making false representations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The District Court again disagreed with the trial judge on the falsity of the statements, and again said time was an issue. “Those representations occurred more than 10 years before the Stimpsons’ accident.”

Then the District Court turned to the trial court’s evisceration of Ford’s experts. After a complicated discussion on intrinsic and extrinsic fraud and the nature of the scientific evidence at trial, the court found that the trial court was wrong when it found Ford committed fraud. Then, the court turned to the new trial issue. No new trial for you Plaintiff.

“Conflicting testimony was presented during the Stimpsons’ case-in-chief concerning whether there was a causal defect in the van’s cruise control system, as well as whether there was causal negligence by Ford. Also, there was conflicting evidence concerning Mr. Stimpson’s pedal misapplication. As such, the trial court erred in concluding that the only reasonable inference from the evidence was that the cruise control system was negligently designed. Additionally, ‘[a] jury’s verdict is generally not against the manifest weight of evidence if the record shows conflicting testimony from two or more witnesses.’”

“We reverse and remand for reinstatement of the judgment.”

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