Ford Motor Co., Inc. v. Phillips

Decision Date21 July 1989
Citation551 So.2d 992
PartiesFORD MOTOR COMPANY, INC. v. Renee PHILLIPS and Rickey Phillips. 87-1257.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

C. Robert Gottlieb, Jr., and William W. Watts III of Reams, Vollmer, Philips, Killon, Brooks & Schell, Mobile, for appellant.

Frank J. Tipler, Jr., and John M. Pennington of Tipler and Tipler, Andalusia, for appellee.

KENNEDY, Justice.

This is an appeal of a judgment entered on a jury verdict against Ford Motor Company ("Ford") and in favor of Renee and Rickey Phillips for $25,000. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

The issues are: whether the trial court erred when it refused to grant Ford's motions for directed verdict on the claims of breach of warranty and fraudulent misrepresentation; whether the closing arguments made by the plaintiffs' attorney improperly referred to punitive damages after the trial judge had stricken the plaintiffs' claim for such damages; whether the trial court erred in refusing to give the jury instructions relating to the plaintiffs' responsibility for maintaining their automobile; whether the trial court committed prejudicial error in charging the jury that damages for mental anguish could be recovered for breach of warranty and misrepresentation; whether the trial court erred in awarding fees to the plaintiffs' lawyers; and whether the trial court improperly rejected the motion for new trial or remittitur.

FACTS

The Phillipses bought a new 1985 Ford Escort automobile from Covington Motors in Opp, Alabama. The purchase price of $8,115.48, after trade-in, included an extended warranty that covered the car for five years or 60,000 miles, whichever came first. The day the car was purchased, the Phillipses experienced trouble with the radiator. The next day, Renee Phillips took the car back to the dealer. The car was repaired, and the Phillipses experienced no further problems with the radiator. Approximately one month later, the car began consuming oil at a rate of one to two quarts per week. The car also began stalling due to the failure of the engine to idle properly. In addition, the car's air conditioner emitted fumes inside the car when the air conditioner was operating. All of these problems were reported to Covington Motors, and the car was examined by its mechanics on several occasions, but it was never repaired to the Phillipses' satisfaction. Subsequently, Covington Motors went out of business.

The Phillipses contacted two other Ford dealerships regarding the problems, but they were told that the dealer who sold them the car should work on it and that any repairs would have to be approved by Ford. They attempted to telephone Ford but could only reach a recording. Jones Ford then opened on the site where Covington Motors had been. Approximately one year after purchasing the car, Renee Phillips took the car to Jones Ford to have the air conditioner and the idle checked. After this visit to Jones Ford, the Phillipses took the car to an independent mechanic to have the problems repaired. On April 30, 1987, the Phillipses sued Ford, alleging breach of express and implied warranties, and fraudulent misrepresentation.

At trial, Renee Phillips testified that, in addition to reaching a recording on several occasions, the Phillipses had been told by the Jones Ford service manager that their car was no longer under warranty, when in fact it was. At trial, the service manager testified that he told Rickey Phillips not to bring the car back to him. However, Ford points out that the Phillipses did not begin to complain about the oil problem until a year later and that when Jones Ford asked Mrs. Phillips to bring the car in on a daily basis for a two week period, she did not comply. Ford's expert at trial contended that the Phillipses did not service the crank case ventilation system, and that the lack of service caused sludge to build up in the engine and that this was the cause of some of the problems. The jury returned a general verdict for the Phillipses for $25,000. The court entered an order awarding fees of $10,500 for the Phillipses' attorney.

I. DEFENDANT'S MOTIONS FOR DIRECTED VERDICT

Ford contends that, at trial, the Phillipses presented no evidence of fraud. Because the trial court ruled that the evidence would not support an award of punitive damages, Ford argues that an award for fraud was necessarily precluded. Ford also argues that a verdict should have been directed in its favor on the breach of warranty claim because the evidence at trial showed that the problems with the excessive oil consumption of the car were the direct result of a lack of maintenance by the Phillipses. Problems resulting from the owners' inattention were not covered under the warranty.

"A directed verdict is proper only where there is a complete absence of proof on an issue material to the claim or where there are no disputed questions of fact on which reasonable people could differ." Caterpillar Tractor Co. v. Ford, 406 So.2d 854, 856 (Ala.1981). Based on the record before us, it appears that a jury could reasonably have found the following: that the Phillipses began experiencing difficulties with the car on the day they purchased it; that the car began consuming oil at an inordinate rate a month after the purchase; that the car's air conditioner emitted fumes inside the car when the air conditioner was operating; that the car idled improperly; that the dealer who sold the car stated that it was a "good" car that would get "good" service; that the dealer who succeeded Covington Motors told the Phillipses that their car was not under warranty and not to return with the car; that each Ford dealership contacted by the Phillipses either refused to repair the car or required Ford's consent before doing so; that when attempts were made to contact Ford, a telephone recording told the Phillipses to go to their local dealer; and that the Phillipses' car was never properly repaired.

From this evidence, a jury could reasonably have concluded that the Phillipses should recover for breach of express and implied warranties and for fraudulent misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court correctly denied Ford's motions for directed verdict.

II. CLOSING ARGUMENT BY THE PLAINTIFFS' COUNSEL

In his closing argument, the Phillipses' attorney asked the jury to return damages for mental anguish against Ford that would "catch their attention in Detroit." Ford argues that because the trial court had expressly ruled out an award of punitive damages, the argument was an improper attempt to get the jury to punish Ford.

An argument to a jury to "catch the attention" of the defendant's home office does not, by itself, suggest to the jury that the jury is to punish the defendant. The phrase "catch the attention" could just as easily have applied to other types of damages. It could be interpreted to suggest that the home office would be...

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    • United States
    • Alabama Supreme Court
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    ...Bishop argues is required here. See Volkswagen of America, Inc. v. Dillard, 579 So.2d 1301 (Ala.1991), and Ford Motor Co., Inc. v. Phillips, 551 So.2d 992 (Ala.1989). "Alabama law does not require that an expert witness testify in every case involving an alleged malfunction of a product whe......
  • Ex parte General Motors Corp.
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    ...Bishop argues is required here. See Volkswagen of America, Inc. v. Dillard, 579 So.2d 1301 (Ala.1991), and Ford Motor Co., Inc. v. Phillips, 551 So.2d 992 (Ala.1989). Alabama law does not require that an expert witness testify in every case involving an alleged malfunction of a product wher......
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    ...of damages for mental anguish resulting from a breach of contract or warranty in the sale of a new car. See Ford Motor Co., Inc. v. Phillips, 551 So.2d 992 (Ala.1989). 2 In the instant case, we are asked to widen the breach in the general rule beyond its present limits so as to allow the re......
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    ...that it was a 'good' car that would get 'good' service . . . and the dealer and Ford refused to repair the car." Ford Motor Co. v. Phillips, 551 So. 2d 992, 994 (Ala. 1989). With these principles in mind, the Court will examine the five statements Plaintiff claims it relied on and which tur......
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