0

Clayton jury returns $17 million verdict

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

A Clayton County jury has returned a multi-million-dollar verdict against Ford Motor Company, and a co-defendant, in a case involving a 2005 automobile crash that left a local woman paralyzed.

According to Clayton County State Court records, the jury awarded Lynn and Doug Wheeler compensatory damages of $17,716,401, on Dec. 18, in a product-liability case.

"The case involved design defect, and failure to warn claims, against Ford relating to the 2002 Ford Explorer," Alan Hamilton, the Wheelers' attorney, said in a written statement.

The Wheelers' attorney argued that a lap-only seat belt failed to properly protect Lynn Wheeler in the crash, and that the latch on the rear seat, in which she was seated, broke, causing the seat to fold.

The driver of the car that struck the Wheelers' vehicle the day of the crash, John Stanley, was a co-defendant in the case. The jury found that Stanley was responsible for $1,271,640 of the total compensatory damages, according to court records.

The crash occurred on Christmas morning, 2005, on Noah's Ark Road in Clayton County, according to Hamilton.

Lynn Wheeler and her family were traveling to church, and her son, Jeff Wheeler, was driving his 2002, four-door Ford Explorer, Hamilton said in the statement.

Lynn Wheeler was seated in the rear, center seat, wearing a lap-only seat belt. Two of Lynn Wheeler's grandchildren were in child seats on either side of her, Hamilton said.

"As they entered a curve on Noah's Ark Road, a two-door Eagle Talon coupe driven by John C. Stanley crossed the centerline, and struck the Explorer head-on," Hamilton said in the statement.

In the crash, the latch on the Explorer's rear bench seat broke, and the seat began to "move and fold down, and forward," according to Hamilton.

He said the lap belt also failed to keep Lynn Wheeler's head and neck from striking the back of the driver's seat and center console.

"As a result, Lynn Wheeler suffered a cervical spinal cord injury that left her quadriplegic -- unable to move or feel anything from below her neck, and dependent on a ventilator machine to breathe for her," Hamilton said in the statement.

None of the other four occupants of the Explorer suffered serious injuries, he said.

"The clients [Lynn and Doug Wheeler] and our firm wanted to take this case to trial for two reasons: one to take care of Mrs. Wheeler, and two, Ford's own engineers had been warning Ford about this same defect for decades," Hamilton said Wednesday.

"Ford not only didn't fix it, but Ford didn't warn anyone," Hamilton said.

The jury also decided to award punitive damages against Ford Motor Company, according to court records.

According to Hamilton, however, after the jury informed the court that it had reached a verdict on the amount of punitive damages, Ford decided to settle the case before the verdict was received.

"The amount of the settlement is confidential," Hamilton said Wednesday.

Ford Motor Company Spokesperson Marcey Evans also said the terms of the settlement were confidential, and on Thursday declined to comment on the case.

Lynn Wheeler was 58 at the time of the wreck, according to Hamilton. She is a mother of three, and a grandmother of nine, he said.

"She and Doug have been married over 41 years," Hamilton said in the statement. "Doug is a music professor. He teaches at Clayton State University.

"Prior to her injury, Lynn was very active," Hamilton added. "She participated in triathlons, was an avid swimmer, and coached kids' swimming for years."

He said the couple lives in Henry County.

"She's a remarkable person. She's medically stable, but her condition is totally permanent," Hamilton said. "She can't move or feel anything below her neck. She just really makes the most out of life, out of what she has. She always has a smile on her face, despite the fact she's confined to a wheelchair."

Attorney Russell Waldon, who represented John Stanley, the driver whose vehicle struck Wheeler's vehicle, said the verdict was in keeping with his argument in the case.

"We were extremely pleased with the verdict," said Waldon. "John had admitted his culpability with this accident. It was an accident, pure and simple, but it was not all his fault."

Waldon said Wednesday that Stanley lives in Jonesboro.

"He was 19 years old at the time of this accident. He hit an on-coming vehicle head-on," Waldon said. "The jury agreed with our position that while John was responsible for the accident ... most of the injuries were not caused by anything John did or didn't do, but in fact by a defect in the Ford vehicle, in which the plaintiff was a passenger."

Hamilton said that since the 2005 crash, laws regarding lap-only seat belts have changed.

"Congress passed a law ... in December 2002, which took effect in 2007," said Hamilton. "[As a result] no vehicle made after 2007 could have a lap-only belt in the rear, center seat."