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Technology helps officer win $15 million
Article written by Harold Parra and Steven Cahn.
First published in the National Law Journal.

The jury deliberated for approximately 90 minutes before returning a verdict on January 18 of $15 million in damages for the plaintiff, police officer Hansylin Hernandez. The jury was convinced that Ford had manufactured a defective pitman arm in the 1995 Crown Victoria's steering component, which caused Hernandez to veer off the road to the inside of a gradual curve in the road, ultimately crashing his vehicle into a tree and suffering multiple devastating injuries. Hernandez v. Ford Motor Co., MID-L-10461 (Middlesex County, N.J., Super. Ct.).

Ironically, the plaintiff's best evidence of the effects of the defective steering part in a vehicle and its driver, was the defendant's own reconstruction video. Through the use of computer technology, we were able to digitize every exhibit that could foreseeably be used in the case, including the video.

Ford's reconstruction video consisted of comparison test drives around Ford's test course between a '95 Crown Vic containing a new pitman arm (Test 1), and then a similar run around the course with the same vehicle, but containing a simulated defective pitman arm (Test 2). Ford's expert driver performed the test drives and rendered an opinion early in his reports that he experienced no discernible differences in the vehicle's handling or maneuverability.

Test 1 and Test 2 were supplied on separate videotapes. When viewed separately, the tapes, perhaps due to the mechanical delay in changing tapes, appeared to suggest similar vehicle performance in both tests.

The digitization of both videos, however, created the ability to run the tow test videos immediately after one another with virtually no time delay between the viewings. This clearly showed jurors that the differences in vehicle handling between the two test runs were much more pronounced.

Because the defendant's expert took the rigid position that there was absolutely no difference between the maneuverability of the vehicle containing the new part and the vehicle containing the defect, his credibility was shaken when the jury saw the obvious differences in handling in Ford's own video footage.

Note that the actual part in Hernandez's vehicle was unavailable because the car had been destroyed approximately 30 days after the accident. Therefore, the plaintiff's engineer relied upon statistical data obtained from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration regarding the recall data supplied by Ford. The recall data contained information correlating the severity of the defect to the type and amount of use to which a vehicle containing the defect was subjected.

Based on facts supplied to the plaintiff's engineer suggesting heavy around-the-clock police use, in an urban area requiring much turning (and thus use of the steering components), the plaintiff's expert determined the probable level of wear on the defect. He further concluded that any amount of wear on the defective part would have some effect on the vehicle's maneuverability.

Ford argued rigidly that even extensive wear in the defective part has absolutely no effect on the steering, asserting that only in cases where the defective part was worn to the point of total separation from the rest of the steering components would it impact the steering.

Finally, the fact that Hernandez's vehicle veered off the road to the inside of the curve, as opposed to the outside of the curve, weighed heavily in favor of the conclusion that the accident was caused by a steering defect, as opined by the plaintiff's accident reconstruction expert. Ford's reconstruction expert attributed the unusual trajectory of the vehicle to excessive speed, driver error and driver oversteering. On cross-examination, however, Ford's expert admitted that while the driver's experience, familiarity with the vehicle and the road were important factors, he had no knowledge of these variables with respect to Hernandez.

The jury found the plaintiff's expert's opinions more logically palatable than Ford's expert's rigid stance. Ford's video provided additional, solid evidence of the defect's effects, as "seeing is believing."

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