Monday, October 12, 2009

Case Brief: Duncan v. Ford Motor Company

By Brian A. Comer

At long last, here is the case brief for Ford v. Duncan. Sorry for the delay (and length...there is a lot to this case). I will circle back around and drop in citations once the case is published. In the meantime, you can find it here.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: A fire, originating under the hood of Plaintiffs' 2000 Ford Expedition, destroyed Plaintiffs' home on March 1, 2005. Evidence was presented at trial that Ford had recalled two lines of vehicles because of under-hood fires (one in 1999, and one in 2005). Ford attributed the under-hood fires to a certain failure of the speed control deactivation switch (the "switch"), which was manufactured by Texas Instruments ("TI") and installed by Ford. One month after the 1999 recall, a group of scientists employed by Ford produced an internal document that analyzed causes of the fires and proposed solutions. Ford acknowledged in the report that it did not completely understand the cause of the fires, but the report identified a failure in the switch as a potential cause. Ford did not implement any of the report's proposed solutions and did not address the switch failure during the 1999 recall.

At trial, Ford's expert, Mark Hoffman, testified that Ford did not incorporate the proposed solutions because it determined the switch failure and subsequent fires were caused by manufacturing problems at TI. Mr. Hoffman testified that Ford ensured that TI resolved its manufacturing issues, and it replaced any switches that deviated from its specifications. Plaintiffs' expert Jeff Morrill testified that (1) the switch in Plaintiffs' vehicle was the same type of switch that was in the line of vehicles recalled in 1999, (2) the fire was caused by the same failure in the switch as the one that caused the failure in the 1999 recall, and (3) Ford knew of the switch failure before manufacturing Plaintiffs' vehicle, as evidenced by the 1999 recall and the internal report. Plaintiffs' then called their engineering expert Kendrick Richardson, who testified that Ford breached the engineering standard of care. Plaintiffs also offered a report by economist Oliver Wood relating to Ford's net worth and ability to pay a punitive damages award.
PROCEDURE: Plaintiffs brought suit against Defendant Ford. The jury returned a verdict in Plaintiffs' favor, awarding them $620,759.79 in actual damages, reduced to $589,721.80 in proportion to Plaintiffs' comparative fault, and $3 million in punitive damages. Ford appealed the verdict.

ISSUES: Ford's arguments on appeal related to the trial court's admission of certain evidence and the jury's award of punitive damages.
  • With regard to the admission of evidence, Ford argued that the trial court (1) erred by allowing Plaintiffs' expert Jeff Morrill to present design opinions; (2) erred by allowing Plaintiffs to ask Plaintiffs' expert Kendrick Richardson whether Ford breached its engineering standard of care based on Mr. Morrill's conclusions; (3) erred by preventing Ford from asking Plaintiffs' experts, Morrill and Richards, who manufactured the switch and why Ford decided to recall the line of vehicles in 1999; (4) erred by admitting the 19999 recall of the line of vehicles into evidence; (5) erred by submitting Plaintiff Anna Duncan's claim for emotional distress to the jury in the absence of expert testimon; and (6) abused its discretion by not admitting Jack Threadgill's appraisal of the Plaintiffs home into evidence because it qualified as a business record.

  • Ford contended that the jury's award of punitive damages should be reversed because (1) Ford's conduct did not rise to the level of reckless, willful, or wanton conduct, and (2) the trial court should have instructed the jury not to consider conduct occurring outside of South Carolina or harm to non-parties when deciding whether to award punitive damages, (3) the trial court should not have allowed economist Oliver Wood to testify because his testimony invited the jury to return an award of punitive damages against it based solely on its financial well-being, and (4) Ford's conduct satisfied the guideposts set forth in BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996).
DISPOSITION: The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the circuit court.

RULES AND OPINION: With regard to Ford's evidentiary arguments, the South Carolina Court of Appeals found as follows:

(1) Plaintiffs' expert Jeff Morrill testified within his area of expertise (i.e., the cause and origin of the fire), and he never offered any design opinions. Morrill's testimony about the switch failure was not that it was defectively designed, but that it was the cause of the fire. Furthermore, he relied on the internal report to provide this opinion, and therefore he could testify about it (despite not having firsthand knowledge of the report, and despite not having worked at Ford).

(2) The trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing Plaintiffs' expert Kendrick Richardson to respond to the hypothetical question of whether Ford breached its engineering standard of care, based on Morrill's conclusions. As stated before, Morrill was qualified to offer his testimony. Plaintiffs' posing of this question to Richardson at trial was not misleading--even though it omitted the manufacturing problems at TI--because it was based on Morrill's testimony and the internal report, neither of which referred to manufacturing issues at TI.

(3) The trial court did not err in preventing Ford from asking Morrill and Richardson who manufactured the switch and why Ford decided to recall the line of vehicles in 1999. "A manufacturer who incorporates into his product a component made by another has a responsibility to test and inspect such components, and his negligent failure to properly perform such duty renders him liable for injuries proximately caused as a consequence." (citing Nelson v. Coleman Co., 249 S.C. 652, 657, 155 S.E.2d 917, 920 (1967)). Because Ford incorporated the switch manufactured by TI, it was legally responsible for it in the event that it failed and caused damage. For this reason, the fact that TI made the switch was irrelevant. In addition, Ford produced no evidence that its 1999 recall was prompted by manufacturing problems at TI. Even if the trial court committed error in precluding this line of questioning, Ford was not prejudiced.

(4) The trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the 1999 recall into evidence. The evidence indicated that the under-hood fires that prompted the 1999 recall of the other line of Ford vehicles were substantially similar to the under-hood fires in the Plaintiffs' Expedition. (Citing Whaley v. CSX Transp., Inc. 362 S.C. 356, 483, 609 S.E.2d 286, 300 (2005) (noting other incidents must be substantially similar to be relevant and admissible in a products liability action)).

(5) The court did not find error with regard to submission of Plaintiff Anna Duncan's claim for emotional distress to the jury in the absence of expert testimony. The jury verdict of $620,759.79 was less than the evidence of actual damages presented at trial (exclusive of the claim for emotional distress), and therefore the verdict should not be disturbed on appeal. (Citing Burns v. Universal Health Servs., Inc., 361 S.C. 221, 232, 603 S.E.2d 605, 611 (Ct. App. 2004)).

(6) The trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding Jack Threadgill's appraisal of Plaintiffs' home from evidence. Ford sought to introduce the document to show the value Threadgill assigned to Plaintiff's home, and the business records exception does not allow subjective opinions within documents to be introduced into evidence. (Citing S.C. R. Evid. 803(6)). Threadgill's appraisal was a subjective opinion.

With regard to Ford's punitive damages arguments, the South Carolina Court of Appeals found as follows:

(1) The court upheld that clear and convincing evidence concerning Ford's conduct supported the jury's award of punitive damages. As stated by the court:

Under South Carolina law, punitive damages may be awarded to punish torfeasors who have acted in a "reckless, willful, or wanton" manner. The plaintiff must prove punitive damages by clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing evidence is: "that degree of proof which will produce in the mind of the trier of facts a firm belief as to the allegations sought to be established." The clear and convincing standard is the highest burden of proof known to civil law.
(Citations omitted). Based on this standard, the court found that Ford knew that the switch it installed could fail and that the failures were causing fires before its manufacture of Plaintiffs' vehicle. Ford's knowledge and failure to make any changes to the switch rose to the level of reckless, willful, and wanton conduct.

(2) The court did not believe that the evidence or the arguments in the case required that the trial court charge the jury "not to consider conduct occurring outside of South Carolina or harm to non-parties when decideing whether to award punitive damages." The Due Process Clause requires this charge only when there is a risk that a jury may award punitives for conduct occurring outside the state for harm to non-parties. The recalls introduced into evidence by the plaintiffs were introduced for notice and to show that a prior recall was due to the same type of failure. Plaintiffs introduced evidence to show the reprehensible nature of Ford's conduct, and not to show the number of vehicles recalled or the number of under-hood fires.

(3) The court disagreed that Oliver Wood's expert testimony about Ford's general wealth and ability to pay a punitive damages award was inadmissible. The court cited to prior authority in which testimony beyond a defendant's mere net worth was allowed to establish the defendant's ability to pay a punitive damages award. The court also stated that Dr. Wood's testimony allowed the jury to follow the court's instructions and "punish the defendant but not effect bankruptcy."

(4) The court reviewed the procedural and substantive constitutional limitations on the award of punitive damages as set forth in BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 562 (1996). With regard to reprehensibility of conduct, the court noted that the damage was economic (destruction of the house), as opposed to physical, which weighed in Ford's favor. However, in spite of this, the court found that Ford's conduct was reprehensible because:

In short, Ford installed a switch into the [Plaintiffs'] Expedition that it knew could cause fires. This conduct clearly amounts to a reckless disregard for the health and safety of others. . . . While Ford's conduct did not rise to the level of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, Ford's act of installing a switch in the [Plaintiffs'] Expedition that it knew could cause fires amounts to affirmative misconduct.

The court also found the award to be reasonable (with regard to Gore's second factor). The economic harm, combined with the threat of serious physical injury, made the punitive damages award that was 5.087 times the actual damages reasonable. Finally, in examining Gore's third factor regarding comparable civil fines, the court found that the jury's award of three million dollars in punitive damages was not unconstitutionally excessive.

This post is subject to the DISCLAIMER & TERMS OF USE of this website.


  1. Thanks for your website. I am working on my AS in Paralegal studies, your site is the most informative I have found. I am working on briefs now, you offer a valuable service.

  2. You're welcome Rose! I am glad to have you as a follower. Unfortunately, my case "briefs" are probably not as brief as they should be...but that can be challenging when you are trying to summarize opinions that can be 20 plus pages sometimes. Good luck on the AS.

  3. nice briefing! It is really an important case, it can be used as reference in the future in any other case.