Cruise Control Led to Crash, Jury Says

Emotional family hears court award $18 million

Published: Monday, August 7, 2006 – 6:00 am
By Paul Alongi and Jess Davis
STAFF WRITERS
palongi@greenvillenews.com

A jury awarded $18 million Sunday to the driver of a 1995 Ford Explorer and a passenger after finding the vehicle had a defective speed-control system when it crashed on Interstate 385 in December 1999.

Sonya Watson, who received $15 million, wiped tears from her cheeks while sitting in a motorized wheelchair outside a Greenville County courtroom.

“I don’t think it will ever be a fair amount because I can’t put a price on my legs,” said Watson, who became a quadriplegic in the wreck.

After 12 hours of deliberations over two days, the jury found that Ford Motor Co. was negligent and breached a warranty because of a defective speed-control system.

The crash in Laurens County killed Patricia Carter. The six-man, six-woman jury awarded her estate $3 million. Attorneys for Carter and Watson alleged the SUV unexpectedly “took off’ as it traveled down the interstate. They also argued the vehicle had defective seat belts that came undone on impact, a phenomenon known as “inertial unlatching.”

The jury rejected the seat belt claim, saying they did not find evidence Ford or TRW Vehicle Safety Systems provided defective seat belts.

Attorneys for Ford and TRW declined comment. In the trial, they argued Carter and Watson weren’t wearing seat belts.

For the families involved, the verdict was an emotional end to a three-week trial that brought back painful memories of a wreck that broke Watson’s neck.

Her father, Curtis Watson, bounced his knees up and down as the jury filed into the courtroom about 6 p.m. Tears streamed down his face as the clerk read the jury’s verdict.

Sonya Watson showed no emotion, even as the clerk announced her $15 million award. It wasn’t until her attorney, Ed Bell, turned around to mouth a few words that she smiled.

“Finally, I can get this behind me,” she said as family members embraced outside the courtroom. “I hope Ford has learned a lesson.”

The jury’s award was for actual damages. It did not award punitive damages.

Attorneys on both sides said Watson, who was 17 at the time of the wreck, was driving when the SUV crashed.

In the trial, Bell said that when the Explorer “took off,” Watson tried to tap the brakes. When the vehicle didn’t stop, she reached for the pedal, he said. Watson’s safety belt came undone, he said, and she was ejected from the vehicle.

Bell contended Carter also was wearing a seat belt that came undone.

Carter’s father, Renard Simpson, wiped tears from his eyes in the court hallway after the verdict.

“I don’t know how to feel right now,” he said. “Right now, I’m just in a state of shock. I’m just glad for it to be over with.”

The jury deliberated for about three hours Saturday and began again at 9 a.m. Sunday. Family and attorneys waited all day in the courtroom and hallway.

Shortly after 2 p.m., jurors asked if they could consider causes of cruise control malfunction other than electromagnetic interference. Circuit Court Judge Edward Miller ruled that the jury should “consider any and all evidence presented” and give it what weight they thought right.

After the verdict, Miller gave attorneys two weeks from today to file post-trial motions.

“It has been a long three weeks,” he said.

Emotional trial: Sonya Watson’s family gets hugs Sunday from jurors in the hallway of the Greenville County courthouse after the verdict was read in a civil suit involving a Ford Explorer crash.

HEIDI HEILBRUNN / Staff