Pennsylvania court denies Ford new trial in $5.9M airbag case

Imagine that you’re an 83-year-old man who has been in a horrible auto accident, made much worse by an airbag that didn’t deploy. As a result, your head hit the windshield, leaving you with severe spinal injuries that paralyzed you and took away your ability to walk. Now imagine that more than five years later, your liability case against the car’s manufacturer is still winding its way through the court system.

That nightmare scenario became reality for John A. Cancelleri in 2010 when he was involved in a two-car accident on Route 307. The airbag of Cancelleri’s 2005 Mercury Sable did not activate when he hit another car that turned into his path. A jury awarded $5.9 million in damages based on Cancelleri’s legal argument that the malfunctioning airbag amounted to a “crashworthy design defect.”

Ford Motor Co. appealed the case, arguing that a change to Pennsylvania’s tort law required a new trial. However, the Pennsylvania Superior Court disagreed and recently affirmed the damages award.

No Legal Errors in Previous RulingPennsylvania airbag crash- verdict against Ford is upheld

Judge Anne E. Lazarus noted in her opinion that no legal errors were committed during the 2014 Lackawanna County Court civil trial to justify granting Ford a new trial. The court also found that a 2014 landmark ruling by the state Supreme Court — the Tincher v. Omega Flex case — was not applicable to Mr. Cancelleri’s case. Ford also was not unfairly disadvantaged due to instructions given to the jury, the court found.

In the Tincher ruling, the court gave juries the discretion to evaluate evidence to weigh the usefulness and risks of products in liability cases; previously, such decisions were matters of law that judges decided. Judge Lazarus noted in her opinion that Ford’s argument for a new trial was not persuasive. The Tincher case was unrelated to crashworthiness, she said, and it did not mandate that specific jury instructions be used.

‘Proof of Risks and Utilities’

Mr. Cancelleri and his wife, Rosetta Cancelleri, argued in their eight-day trial in 2014 that Ford bore responsibility for the failure of the airbag to deploy when their car was struck. Mr. Cancelleri sustained injuries including spinal cord compression and has been confined to a wheelchair since the accident. Additional medical problems caused by the crash include urinary tract infections and bladder issues, along with diabetes.

Ford challenged the jury’s finding and argued that questioning should have included whether the Mercury Sable was unreasonably dangerous. The company also argued that it should have been asked to evaluate factors relating to risk and utility in establishing the car’s level of danger.

The court found that such a line of questioning would not have relevance to cases related to crashworthiness. In such cases, a jury already has determined whether a vehicle had a defective design and if a safer design could have been used in its place. In other words, Judge Lazarus noted, the jury had already weighed “proof of risks and utilities” related to whether the damage to the plaintiff was caused by product defects.

The court also ruled that the lower-court judge was not wrong in stopping Ford from introducing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash test data. Precedent warrants the exclusion of such data, the court noted.

If You’re Injured in an Accident, Consult an Experienced Attorney

Automobile accidents can result in serious injuries that may not fully manifest until years later. If you’ve been in an accident — whether due to a defect such as a faulty airbag or because of another driver’s negligence — consult with an experienced personal injury attorney. If you’re in Philadelphia or the surrounding areas, including New Jersey, contact Solnick & Associates LLC for a free consultation.