Ford Motor Co. v. Ammerman, 49A05-9608-CV-322

Decision Date12 February 1999
Docket NumberNo. 49A05-9608-CV-322,49A05-9608-CV-322
Citation705 N.E.2d 539
PartiesProd.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 15,441 FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Appellant-Defendant, v. Vicki AMMERMAN, Guardian of Pamela Ammerman and Lana Ammerman, Appellees-Plaintiffs.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court
OPINION

RUCKER, Judge.

Case Summary

Lana and Pamela Ammerman (referred to collectively as "the Ammermans") sustained severe and permanent injuries when a 1986 Bronco II 4x4 in which they were passengers rolled over. The vehicle was manufactured by Ford Motor Company. The Ammermans sued Ford on various theories of liability, and they also sought punitive damages. The case proceeded to trial by jury upon the theory of strict liability in tort pursuant to Indiana's Product Liability Act. The jury returned a verdict in the Ammermans' favor. Lana Ammerman was awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $400,000.00 and Pamela Ammerman was awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $4 million. The jury also awarded each of the Ammermans $29 million in punitive damages for a total punitive damages award of $58 million. On motion by Ford the trial court reduced the total punitive damages award to $13.8 million. Ford also filed a motion for relief from judgment which the trial court denied. Ford now appeals and the Ammermans cross appeal.

Issues on Direct Appeal

1. Did the trial court err in admitting as scientific evidence the emergency avoidance testing conducted by the Ammermans' expert.

2. Did the trial court err by excluding Ford's evidence that passenger cars roll over on paved surfaces from side force alone in light of the Ammermans' theories that (i) passenger cars are immune from rollover and, (ii) Bronco IIs should have been designed to perform the same as passenger cars.

3. Was the evidence sufficient to sustain an award of punitive damages.

4. Was the punitive damages award, even as remitted, violative of (i) the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution, and (ii) Indiana common law and the proportional penalties clause of the Indiana constitution.

5. Did the trial court err in denying Ford's motion for relief from judgment when actions of the Ammermans' experts immediately after trial contradicted their trial testimony and their representations to the trial court.

Issue on Cross Appeal

Did the trial court err in remitting the award of punitive damages.

Background

As a result of the gasoline shortages of the late-1970s, the automotive industry attempted to make its fleet more fuel efficient. R. at 5643. Pursuant to governmental regulations and consumer demands, Ford decided to introduce a new compact pickup truck and sports utility vehicle (SUV), the Ranger and the Bronco II, respectively. R. at 5645. Ford elected to make the Bronco II a derivative vehicle of the Ranger because only a moderate investment would be required, making the Bronco II more profitable than other alternatives presented. 1 R. at 7194-95. As a derivative vehicle the Bronco II shared the same assembly line with the Ranger and was practically identical from the "B" pillar forward. R. at 7193.

Using an entirely new platform, as opposed to modifying that used for the Ranger, would have delayed production one to two years, placing Ford at least a year-and-a-half behind the release of General Motors' ("GM") competitive SUV, the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer. R. at 8880. The first Bronco II, known as "Job 1," was to be manufactured in mid-January 1983 and to be released in mid-March 1983. R. at 6041. GM was scheduled to release the Blazer in the early fall of 1982. Id. Ford projected sales of the Bronco II to reach 468,000 with a net profit realized on each vehicle of $3,570 and total net profits of $1.6 billion dollars. R. at 7194-95.

Ford selected the Jeep CJ-7 as its image vehicle which meant that the CJ-7 was Ford's developmental point of reference. R. at 7696, 8711. The goals for the Bronco IIs came from the CJ-7's performance, package dimensions, and characteristics. R. at 8711-12. At the time Ford selected the CJ-7 as its image vehicle, Ford knew that studies showed that the Jeep CJ-5 and CJ-7 had rollover propensities significantly higher than other vehicles in their class. R. at 7698. 2 The popular television program "60 Minutes" aired a segment which described the danger of Jeep rollovers in late 1980 of which Ford was aware, yet it continued to use the CJ-7 as its developmental model. 3 R. at 5995, 7188. According to some experts in the field, the tendency to roll over is caused by a low static stability index ("SI"). The SI describes the relationship between a vehicle's track width and the height of the vehicle's center of gravity. The lower the SI, the higher the risk of rolling over. A vehicle with a narrow track and a high center of gravity is more likely to roll.

In February 1981, Ford engineers offered management five proposals to make the Bronco II more stable. Proposals One and Two involved slight increases in the Bronco II's stability index to 2.02 and 2.03, respectively. R. at 6001-02. Proposals Three, Four and Five involved additional widening of the track and lowering of the center of gravity. These changes would result in SIs of 2.09, 2.19, and 2.25, respectively. 4 R. at 6001-04. Proposals One and Two could be completed by the production deadline date for the Bronco II; but Proposals Three, Four, and Five "[could] not be contained within Job # 1, 1983 P/U 4x4 timing" because they involved increasing ride height, widening the track, and/or making body revisions. R. at 6001. As a result Ford chose to proceed with Proposal Two knowing that the Bronco II would have a stability index of 2.03, worse than that of the CJ-7 at 2.04. R. at 6003.

In addition to an automobile's stability index, its tendency to roll over is governed by the amount of understeer or oversteer 5 and its sensitivity to steering inputs. R. at 5990. Ford added a front stabilizer bar to the Bronco in order to increase the Bronco II's roll stiffness, hoping to increase the amount of its understeer. R. at 7467. When equipped with a front stabilizer bar the Bronco II was an understeer vehicle, but when it approached its cornering limit, the Bronco II became an oversteer vehicle. R. at 6658-61. After adding a front stabilizer bar, Ford performed only subjective tests to evaluate the bar, without performing objective tests such as limit maneuvers or lane change testing. R. at 6676-81.

Another factor affecting the Bronco II's stability was Ford's use of the twin I-beam (swing-axle) suspension. Swing axles have a tendency to "jack" because lateral forces on the tire tend to push the axle up. Jacking has two effects: (1) the tires will move inward under the vehicle, causing the vehicle to become narrower, and (2) the front of the vehicle moves up, making the vehicle taller. R. at 6231-34. As a result, stability decreases instantaneously. Jacking causes the Bronco II to jump up or "spike," when the vehicle experiences lateral forces of about .65 Gs. R. at 6267. Ford knew about the jacking problem associated with the twin I-beam suspension. The engineering department published a paper as early as 1965 warning that in smaller vehicles twin I-beams created jacking during cornering. R. at 6251. Ford did have safer choices, and its own engineers recommended the use of a MacPherson strut which lowers the center of gravity. However, the executive in charge of making the suspension decision elected to go with the twin I-beam as a result of pressures from his superiors. R. at 7970-72. Ford also sought additional marketing advantages available with the twin I-beam. 6

After the decision to go with Proposal Two had been made, Ford built a mechanical prototype of the Bronco II using the Jeep CJ-7 as its image vehicle and making the Proposal Two modifications. Ford then scheduled extensive testing of the mechanical prototype. R. at 7209. As a result of the testing, Ford engineers reported that the Bronco II's track needed to be widened or its ride height lowered. R. at 7212.

After the mechanical prototype testing, Ford built engineering prototypes. Initially, the prototypes were tested with the vehicle performing J-turns 7 of up to 55 m.p.h. and 360 degrees of steer. R. at 7215. The vehicle would tip over at speeds as low as 30 m.p.h. Id. Ford's engineers tried a combination of different suspensions, tires, and steering designs in an attempt to stabilize the Bronco II. Id. By mid-March 1982, development engineers again reported that to improve the problem of rollovers, the track width had to be increased by three to four inches. R. at 7222.

In April 1982, Ford scheduled a meeting to review a track-widening proposal and to "develop a contingency plan which will not delay Job # 1." R. at 7230. The engineers concluded that a 2-inch increase in track width was the minimum required for a minor improvement in stability. R. at 7239. A significant improvement in J-turn handling could be achieved on a Bronco II by using 14-inch wheels or increasing track-width 3 to 4 inches. R. at 7241. Neither of these recommendations was ever implemented. 8 R. at 7276. Even modest increases of two inches were rejected by Ford because "even with 110% effort, Job # 1 would be in serious jeopardy." R. at 7268, 7286. Eight months from the commencement of Job # 1, the engineers once again recommended increasing the track by two...

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    ...which logically tends to prove a material fact. Barnes v. Barnes , 603 N.E.2d 1337 (Ind. 1992). See also Ford Motor Co. v. Ammerman, 705 N.E.2d 539 (Ind.App. 1999). In Cahoon v. Cummings, 715 N.E.2d 1 (Ind. App. 1999), a medical malpractice case, the defending physician made insertions into......
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