Two years ago, a group of Good Samaritans rescued a young mother and her two children from a burning car that had collided head-on with a 2002 Ford F-250 diesel pickup on Highway 41 in Madera County.
Wednesday, a jury began digging into the evidence of the collision in order to answer a potential $200 million question: Should Ford Motor Co. be liable for the June 22, 2011 collision?
Brittany Gilchrist, her 4-year-old daughter, Cambria, and her younger sister, Shaelin, were trapped inside the burning wreckage before rescuers smashed the car's windows and pulled them to safety.
Brittany Gilchrist suffered several broken bones and a brain injury. Because she was knocked unconscious, Cambria thought her mother was dead, said the family's attorneys, Richard Watters and Douglas Gordon.
The family sued Ford Motor Co. for negligence and product liability. After a month's worth of testimony, a jury is trying to figure out what happened.
At issue is the steering and braking system -- called the Hydro Boost system -- that was installed in the 2002 F-250, four-wheel-drive, 7.3 liter diesel truck that collided with Gilchrist's Nissan Sentra on Highway 41 near the North Fork turnoff.
The Hydro Boost system was installed on Ford F-250 diesel trucks between 1999 and 2002 when trucks were a hot item because fuel was cheaper.
In gas vehicles, the power steering system is separate from the braking system. But in Ford's diesel truck's Hyro Boost system, the braking and steering systems are interconnect and share hydraulic fluid, Watters told the jury in closing arguments Tuesday.
Watters contends Ford Motor Co. is negligent in the design of the Hydro Boost system because when a driver hits the brakes hard, it robs fluid from the steering system, making it nearly inoperable.
Ford employees and outside experts notified Ford Motor Co. of potential problem with the Hydro Boost system, but company executives ignored them, Watters told the jury.
To this day, Ford has never recalled F-250 diesel trucks with the Hydro Boost system or retrofitted them, he said.
San Francisco attorney Frank Kelly, who represents Ford, however, said there's nothing wrong with the Hydro Boost system, so there's no reason to recall it. When a driver hits the brakes, the power steering works -- though it may be slightly harder to turn, he said.
Kelly said the collision was caused by two key factors:
The truck's left front tire blew out, forcing the pickup to drift left across the center divider and into the path of Gilchrist's Nissan Sentra.
Once the blowout happened, the driver of the truck, Michael Pritchett, turned his steering wheel left before hitting the brakes, Kelly said.
"The tire (with the blowout) was not a Ford tire," Kelly told the jury. It was a Big O tire with 10,000 miles on it, he said. "It was not the right size or dimension," Kelly said. Therefore, Ford is not responsible for the collision.
Though the collision happened in Madera County, the case ended up in Fresno County Superior Court because Lithia Ford in Fresno also was sued. The dealer had sold the truck in question, but was dismissed from the case.
Brittany and her husband Marc Gilchrist live in Yosemite Lakes in Madera County. On June 22, 2011, she and her two daughters were headed to a relative's home in North Fork.
She was traveling south on Highway 41 and Pritchett was headed north. When the left front tire blew out, the tread started separating from the tire, causing it to drift left and cross the center divider, Kelly told the jury.
From the moment Pritchett hit the brakes to the point of impact was three seconds, Kelly said. The truck left a 245-foot-long skid mark, he said.
Kelly said an expert calculated Pritchett's speed at 62 mph. If he had been going 55 mph, "there would be no collision," Kelly told the jury.
But Watters said Pritchett was traveling normal highway speed. He also said Pritchett testified in the trial that when the blowout happened, he hit the brakes hard and tried to turn right to avoid the collision, but he couldn't turn the wheel.
Watters said Ford has conceded its Hydro Boost system has a condition called "booster run-out," which can result in diminished power steering in high speed "stomp and steer" braking maneuvers. This means it will be five to nine times harder to turn the wheel, he said. Problems arise because Ford never told its customers of this defect, Watters said.
He presented evidence of a two-year investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Defect Investigations, or ODI. The agency investigated Ford's Hydro Boost system and concluded that it gives priority to the braking system over the steering, Watters said.
"Ford also did its own testing and confirmed this phenomenon," Watters told jurors.
Watters contends Ford is guilty of strict liability, negligence and failure to warn customer of its defective product design.
He said Brittany Gilchrist's injuries included fractures to both femurs, her right tibia and fibula, and left clavicle, was wells as moderate traumatic brain injury. He said she is completely disabled from her "dream job" as a registered nurse at Children's Hospital Central California. Cambria also suffered significant injuries, including damage to her pancreas, he said.
In sizing up damages, Watters asked the jury to award the Gilchrist family more than $20 million for Brittany and Cambria's medical bills; wages losses for Brittany; and for the family's pain and suffering.
Watters also asked jurors to make Ford Motor Co. pay as much as $200 million in punitive damages; he said Ford has total assets of more than $7 billion. To award punitive damages, jurors must find that Ford's conduct was despicable and the company acted with malice in that it wilfully disregarded concerns for the truck's braking system.
"Ford's clear and conceded knowledge of the Hydro Boost defect for more than 10 years (prior to the collision) constitutes reprehensible, malicious conduct," he said.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, email@example.com or @beecourts on Twitter.