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Ford Motor Co. must pay the widow of a delivery driver who died at Ford Motor’s Kansas City Assembly Plant nearly $80 million in compensatory and aggravating circumstances damages, an appellate court held Tuesday.
In Ford v. Ford Motor Co., a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, affirmed a jury award against Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co. after it rejected the automaker’s argument that the deceased delivery driver was trespassing in the area where he was killed.
David Ford had been delivering vehicle seats to the plant located in Claycomo, Missouri, as an employee for a trucking company for less than two weeks. As part of his job, drivers were ordered to back into the loading dock at the plant where pallets of seats were removed by an L-shaped pair of conveyor lines. On Dec. 8, 2015, while delivering the seats, Mr. Ford entered the area between the conveyor belts to manually clear a jam during seat removal and stepped into a “pinch point” between the tables.
He was pinned against a guard rail by one of the carriers and crushed. A forensic pathologist testified that the force inflicted on Mr. Ford at the time of the incident was comparable to the force inflicted in a high-velocity motor vehicle accident. The incident compressed Mr. Ford’s heart muscle and he underwent extensive open-heart surgery immediately following his accident. He died a week later in the hospital as a result of the blunt-force injuries he sustained at the Ford plant.
His widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Ford Motor, alleging that Ford negligently failed to remove or barricade a dangerous pinch point or effectively warn visitors of its existence. A jury in the Circuit Court of Clay County in Liberty, Missouri, assigned Ford Motor 95% comparative fault for the worker’s death and awarded his widow and son $38 million in compensatory damages and an additional $38 million in aggravating circumstances.
Ford Motor appealed, arguing that the circuit court erred in failing to direct a verdict for Ford Motor on the basis that the worker trespassed into the area where he was killed and that the pinch point was an open and obvious danger. They also argued that the court improperly submitted aggravating circumstances instruction and admitted evidence of other incidents involving the equipment that caused the worker’s death.
The appellate court, however, affirmed the jury decision. Although Ford Motor argued that Mr. Ford was a trespasser and that the company, therefore, owed him not duty of care, the court noted that Mr. Ford’s widow introduced evidence that delivery drivers routinely cleared jams during seat deliveries, and that Mr. Ford “was not acting in excess of the invitation he had been given.” The court further noted that Ford Motor produced no evidence that it had signage warning drivers from entering the area or had verbally instructed or warned drivers not to enter that area.
The court also dismissed Ford Motor’s arguments that the pinch point was open and obvious, that the jury improperly awarded aggravating circumstances damages, or that it considered prior incidents where workers had been injured in the pinch point, including an incident six weeks prior to Mr. Ford’s accident when an electrician narrowly avoided being injured at the pinch point.
Michael Ketchmark, owner of Kansas City, Missouri-based law firm Ketchmark and McCreight P.C., who represented the widow, said that about $10 million of the damages awarded to Mr. Ford’s family will be paid into the state’s Crime Victim Compensation Fund.
“The family is delighted that the verdict was affirmed and we felt strongly that there was no reason for the court of appeals to disturb it,” he said.
A spokesperson for Ford Motor said that that the company’s “thoughts go out to the family” but that the company does not agree with the court’s decision and plans to appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.
A federal appeals court has overturned a $3 million products liability jury verdict against Ford Motor Co. in which it was accused of having a design defect in one of its trucks, ruling the plaintiff’s expert testimony in the case was unreliable and should have been excluded.