WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ordered a state appeals court Monday to review a decision giving $82.6 million to a woman who was paralyzed after her Ford Explorer rolled over.
The justices want a California appeals court to determine if its ruling is in line with the Supreme Court decision overturning a $79.5 punitive damages award in a tobacco case earlier this year. The court said then that a jury may punish a defendant only for the harm done to the person who is suing, not to others whose cases were not before it.
Benetta Buell-Wilson, 51, was driving on an interstate east of San Diego in January 2002 when she swerved to avoid a metal object and lost control of her 1997 Explorer, which rolled 4 1/2 times. The mother of two was paralyzed from the waist down when the roof collapsed on her neck, severing her spine.
In June 2004 a San Diego jury found that her Explorer was defective because of instability and a weak roof.
A jury initially awarded $369 million, including $246 million in punitive damages. It was the first damage award against the Ford Motor Company (F) involving a rollover of an Explorer and one of the biggest personal-injury awards ever against an automaker.
Courts twice cut the size of the award. The $82.6 million approved by a California state appeals court now includes punitive damages of $55 million.
Ford's legal team, led by former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, asked the court to take the case because it said Ford was being punished even though the design of the vehicle met federal safety standards.
The case is Ford Motor Company v. Buell-Wilson, 06-1068.