After $43 million verdict, Ford asking for new trial

By Steve Korris | Dec 21, 2005

Attorneys usually file complaints and take them to trial. The Lakin Law Firm of Wood River reversed the process by winning a trial and then filing the complaint.

Attorneys usually file complaints and take them to trial. The Lakin Law Firm of Wood River reversed the process by winning a trial and then filing the complaint.

Attorney Charles Chapman of the Lakin firm filed an amended complaint Nov. 6 for Dora Jablonski and her son John Jablonski Jr., more than six months after a Madison County jury returned a $43 million verdict in their favor against Ford Motor Company.

"During the course of the trial, plaintiffs sought and were granted leave to amend the pleadings to conform to the proof," Chapman wrote. "The filing of this amended complaint is merely a continuation and finalization of that process."

Ford Motor Co., after trying for eight months to persuade Circuit Judge Andy Matoesian to order a new trial, has asked the Fifth District Appellate Court to order a new trial.

According to Ford, Matoesian let the Jablonskis amend the complaint during trial. He even granted leave to amend it at the close of evidence, in a conference on jury instructions.

On April 19, jurors awarded $23.1 million to Dora Mae Jablonski, and $5 million to her son. Jurors awarded $15 million in punitive damages.

The amended complaint that Matoesian allowed during jury instructions arrived at the courthouse May 6, 17 days after the verdict.

Ford moved May 27 for a new trial, arguing that Matoesian prejudiced jurors in deliberations over a collision that killed John Jablonski Sr., and injured his wife.

The gas tank of their 1993 Lincoln Town Car exploded when a rear end crash propelled a wrench from the trunk into the tank.

Ford argued that Matoesian improperly excluded evidence about the negligence of the driver Ford blamed for the crash, Natalie Ingram.

"The notion that Ford was responsible – let alone to the tune of $43 million – for a rear end collision caused by a criminally negligent driver who rammed into plaintiffs at a speed in excess of 60 miles per hour is offensive to notions of common sense," wrote Ford attorney Dan Ball, of Bryan Cave in St. Louis.

Ball argued that Matoesian should have instructed jurors to allocate fault between Ford and Ingram.

Plaintiff's counsel said in their opening statement that Ingram accepted responsibility, but plaintiffs presented no evidence for that, Ball wrote.

He wrote that Matoesian improperly prevented Ford from telling the jury that the crash involved four cars, as evidence of Ingram's excessive speed.

Ball also argued that Matoesian allowed irrelevant evidence. He wrote that one exhibit related to a 1975 Mercury and another related to a Thunderbird crash test.

The verdicts were "induced by the admission of incompetent, irrelevant and speculative evidence," he wrote.

Ball objected to Matoesian's decision to allow an amended complaint during trial. He especially objected to the decision after trial to allow the Lakin firm to amend again.

He also argued that Matoesian gave improper instructions to the jury and refused to give proper instructions.

"…Ford did not and could not receive a fair trial, as the instructions given, taken as a whole, did not state the applicable law fairly and accurately, and were so unclear as to mislead the jury and prejudice Ford," he wrote.

Ball called the award of punitive damages "palpably absurd" and "so grossly excessive as to show passion, partiality or corruption on the part of the jury."

He wrote that, "…punitive damages are not intended to drive the defendant out of business or to threaten a defendant's financial stability."

The trial showed Ford was not aware of any incident in the U.S. in which trunk contents punctured a fuel tank. And, Ford complied with standards of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, he wrote.

"Punishing Ford for selling a 1993 Town Car reasonable people could conclude was safe – a belief supported by compliance with NHTSA standards and confirmed by NHTSA investigation reports – would be fundamentally unfair and would violate the notice requirement of the United States Constitution," Ball wrote.

He called the system of punitive damages in Illinois "arbitrary and discriminatory." Lack of guidelines, he wrote, "inevitably leads to variations in result with no rational basis for differentiation."

Six days after Ball moved for a new trial, the Lakin firm filed another amended complaint.

In August, Matoesian heard arguments on Ford's motion for a new trial. He took it under advisement.

In September, Chapman moved again for leave to amend the complaint. Matoesian allowed it. Chapman filed an amended complaint Nov. 6.

On Nov. 21, Matoesian denied Ford's motion for a new trial.

Ford posted appeal bonds Dec. 16. According to the case docket, Ford filed notice of appeal Dec. 20.

At press time, the notice had not made it to the case file.

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