Stokes v. Ford Motor Co.

Decision Date12 February 2013
Docket NumberNo. DA 11–0713.,DA 11–0713.
Citation300 P.3d 648,368 Mont. 365
PartiesDennis STOKES, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Peter Andrew Carter, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Overland West, Inc., and Todd Durham, Defendants, Appellees and Cross–Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court


For Appellant: Dennis P. Conner; Conner & Pinski, PLLP; Great Falls, Montana, Daniel B. Bidegaray; Bidegaray Law Firm, LLP; Bozeman, Montana.

For Appellees: Neil G. Westesen; Ian McIntosh; Crowley Fleck, PLLP; Bozeman, Montana (Ford Motor Company), Lee A. Mickus; Vaughn A. Crawford; Snell & Wilmer, LLP; Denver, Colorado (Ford Motor Company), Guy W. Rogers; Jon A. Wilson; Brown Law Firm, P.C.; Billings, Montana (Overland West, Inc.).

Justice JIM RICE delivered the Opinion of the Court.

[368 Mont. 366]¶ 1 Appellant Dennis Stokes (Stokes), personal representative of the estate of Peter Andrew Carter (Carter), appeals the jury verdict and judgment of the Thirteenth Judicial District Court concluding that Ford Motor Company (Ford) and Overland West, Inc. (Overland) were not liable in strict products liability or negligence in Carter's death. We affirm.

¶ 2 We consider the following issues on appeal:

¶ 3 1. Whether the District Court erred by denying Stokes' motion for default judgment on liability as a sanction against Ford for withholding evidence of other incidents?

¶ 4 2. Whether the District Court erred by excluding Stokes' proffered evidence of other incidents?

¶ 5 3. Whether the District Court erred by excluding evidence related to Ford's actions in making the Safety Canopy System a standard feature in some other countries in 2002 and in the United States in 2007, and by permitting Ford to present an improper “consumer-choice” defense?

¶ 6 4. Whether the District Court erred by excluding the indemnity agreement between Ford and Overland and limiting questioning about the agreement and these parties' prior adversarial position?


¶ 7 On November 2, 2002, Peter Andrew Carter, a resident of Australia, rented a 2002.5” or mid-year model Ford Explorer at Overland's Bozeman airport location after flying to Montana for a work-related visit. On November 7, Carter was driving on Highway 287 near Ennis when Todd Durham (Durham) executed a left-hand turn of his vehicle in front of Carter, leading to a collision. Carter's Explorer was traveling between 76 and 83 miles per hour, and the impact caused the vehicle to roll five times across a distance of 286 feet. Although Carter's passenger survived, Carter was partially ejected and killed. Dennis Stokes, personal representative for Carter's estate, filed a wrongful death and survival claim against Ford, Overland, and Durham on November 3, 2005. The complaint alleged that the Defendants were responsible for Carter's death under strict products liability and negligence theories.

¶ 8 Stokes claimed that safer alternative designs to protect the driver during rollover were “both technically and economically feasible,” including a Safety Canopy System (SCS), which first became available three months before the subject Explorer was manufactured and was offered as an optional feature for 2002.5 model Explorers. SCS technology was not installed in the Explorer that Carter was driving. Overland, a Hertz Corporation licensee, purchased its fleet of vehicles from Ford.1 Ford claimed that Overland chose not to equip its fleet of Explorers with the optional SCS, and Stokes claimed Overland was negligent in so doing. Ford and Overland ultimately entered into an indemnity agreement and thereafter presented a united position in the litigation. Ford defended by asserting that, even without the SCS technology, the 2002.5 Explorer was a safe vehicle that exceeded all safety standards.

¶ 9 Numerous pretrial motions were filed by the parties regarding discovery of evidence of other accidents, evidence regarding the standardization of SCS technology in Ford Explorers, the indemnity agreement between Ford and Overland, and the use of such evidence at trial. A ten-day jury trial was held between September 6 and 19, 2011. The jury unanimously concluded that Durham was liable in negligence and that Ford and Overland were not liable for Carter's damages.2 The District Court entered judgment accordingly, and Stokes appeals.

¶ 10 Additional facts will be discussed herein.


¶ 11 “A district court has broad discretion in determining whether evidence is relevant and admissible.” Newman v. Lichfield, 2012 MT 47, ¶ 22, 364 Mont. 243, 272 P.3d 625 (quoting Weber v. BNSF Ry., 2011 MT 223, ¶ 18, 362 Mont. 53, 261 P.3d 984). We review a district court's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. Newman, ¶ 22 (citing Sunburst Sch. Dist. No. 2 v. Texaco, Inc., 2007 MT 183, ¶ 74, 338 Mont. 259, 165 P.3d 1079). Likewise, we review a district court's decision to impose discovery sanctions for an abuse of discretion. Kraft v. High Country Motors, Inc., 2012 MT 83,¶ 23, 364 Mont. 465, 276 P.3d 908. A district court abuses its discretion when it acts “arbitrarily without employment of conscientious judgment or exceeded the bounds of reason resulting in substantial injustice.” Kraft, ¶ 23 (citations omitted).


¶ 12 1. Whether the District Court erred by denying Stokes' motion for default judgment on liability as a sanction against Ford for withholding evidence of other incidents?

¶ 13 Stokes moved to compel discovery of “other similar incident” information, including evidence about cases where it was alleged that the lack of SCS and other restraint system inadequacies in Explorers and other Ford light trucks led to injuries or death to occupants in rollover accidents. On April 19, 2011, the District Court granted the motion and set discovery criteria for Ford to follow. On May 27, Ford filed a motion for partial relief from the April 19 order. Ford identified more than 1,350 cases meeting the court's criteria and argued that it would cost “over $2 million with respect to the production of Ford's outside counsel files alone,” involving more than 60 law firms employed by Ford. On June 29, 2011, the District Court issued an order limiting the scope of this discovery to Ford's internal case files, data already collected by Ford from outside counsel, preparation of a list of prospective cases with outside counsel, and production of files from a “reasonable number” of cases identified by Stokes that were managed by outside counsel.

¶ 14 Ford thereafter produced information about other incidents to Stokes on six occasions between June and August of 2011. This discovery consisted of approximately 17 gigabytes of electronic data. On August 12, Ford filed a motion in limine regarding other incident information, requesting exclusion of “all references, direct or indirect, to other accidents, incidents, claims, complaints and/or lawsuits until Plaintiff lays a foundation of substantial similarity, outside the presence of the jury.” On August 15, Stokes moved for default sanctions against Ford for failure to comply with the District Court's June 29 discovery order. That same day, Ford provided an additional 300 gigabytes of electronic data about other incidents. In his response to Ford's motion in limine, Stokes again requested default sanctions because Ford had produced “more than 10 times the evidence that had previously been produced less than a month before trial.” 3

¶ 15 At a hearing on August 24, the District Court addressed Stokes' motion for default sanctions:

I know the Plaintiff would like the Court to enter judgment on liability, because the Plaintiff argues Ford has vocally disregarded the court's orders regarding discovery. I think there is no doubt there have been problems with discovery; I'm not saying Ford has done the best job possible, but I think they tried, and I don't think the default sanction is appropriate.


Don't let my denial of the motion—don't let that give you the idea that I'm not frustrated with Ford, because I am. I'm just not clear that Ford has wantonly disregarded the order of the Court or intentionally tried to slow down discovery here. I just have to believe that a company of Ford's significance, and all the litigation that it's in—that it doesn't have a more streamlined process for producing discovery. I mean, here we are dumping all this information on Plaintiff's counsel on August 15, which is about three weeks before trial. I'm not happy about it; I'm just not convinced that it rises to the level of default sanctions. I want to be clear that if I get the idea as this thing goes along, or if when trial starts, that Ford is playing games, this can be revisited.

The District Court also denied Ford's motion in limine regarding other incidents, but directed that Plaintiff will have to lay a foundation of substantial similarity to introduce this type of evidence in the trial.”

¶ 16 Stokes did not request a continuance of the trial date, stating in his briefing, Plaintiff does not want a continuance. Plaintiff wants this matter tried. Plaintiff and several Australian witnesses have plane tickets purchased for the trial.” Stokes renewed his request for sanctions at trial, stating, “because of the late discovery from the Defendants, ... we were not able to put on a substantial [other incident] case.” The District Court again denied the request.

[368 Mont. 370]¶ 17 On appeal, Stokes argues that “a defendant's late disclosure of critical [other incident] evidence which prejudices a plaintiff's ability to present its case justifies entry of default judgment on liability.” Stokes requests that this Court reverse the District Court's denial of sanctions, noting our statement in Richardson v. State, 2006 MT 43, ¶ 56, 331 Mont. 231, 130 P.3d 634, that courts “must remain intent upon punishing transgressors rather than patiently encouraging their cooperation.” Ford responds that the cases in...

To continue reading

Request your trial
7 cases
  • Mont. State Univ.-Bozeman v. Mont. First Judicial Dist. Court
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • September 11, 2018
    ...practice during pendency of disputed unemployment insurance claim); Stokes v. Ford Motor Co. (Stokes II ) , 2013 MT 29, ¶¶ 19-20, 368 Mont. 365, 300 P.3d 648 (affirming denial of default judgment on liability where untimely dump of 300 GB of requested other similar incidents information thr......
  • S & P Brake Supply, Inc. v. STEMCO LP
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • December 13, 2016
    ...has broad discretion in determining whether evidence is relevant and admissible. Stokes v. Ford Motor Co. , 2013 MT 29, ¶ 11, 368 Mont. 365, 300 P.3d 648. We thus review evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. Stokes , ¶ 11. ¶14 We review for correctness a district court's determina......
  • Spotted Horse v. BNSF Ry. Co.
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • May 29, 2015
    ...“willfully and in bad faith shield[ing] Schuff from a clear view of the truth”); cf. Stokes v. Ford Motor Co., 2013 MT 29, ¶ 20, 368 Mont. 365, 300 P.3d 648 (given that there was no wanton disregard of court orders or an intention to “slow down discovery,” district court did not abuse its d......
  • Teague v. Remington Arms Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Montana
    • November 22, 2022
    ...the lack of safety for intended uses, the standard of care, and causation.'” Lewy, 836 F.2d at 1108; see also Stokes v. Ford Motor Co., 300 P.3d 648, 654 (Mont. 2013) (“Evidence of other similar instances may be admitted to show notice or knowledge of the existence of a danger or defect.”);......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT