A Fresno jury Thursday rejected a family's demand for $200 million in damages from Ford Motor Co., ruling the automaker was not liable for a head-on collision that nearly killed a young mother and her two children.
At issue in the Fresno County Superior Court civil trial was Ford's steering and braking system -- called the Hydro Boost system -- that was installed in a 2002 F-250 four-wheel-drive diesel pickup.
On June 22, 2011, the truck collided with Brittany Gilchrist's Nissan Sentra on Highway 41 in Madera County near the North Fork turnoff.
A badly injured Gilchrist, daughters Cambria, then 4, and Shaelin, then 1 month,were trapped inside the burning wreckage before rescuers smashed the car's windows and pulled them to safety.
The family later sued Ford for negligence and product liability.
In gas vehicles, the power steering system is separate from the braking system. But in Ford's Hydro Boost system in diesel trucks, the braking and steering systems are interconnected and share hydraulic fluid.
During a five-week trial, the family's attorneys, Richard Watters and Doug Gordon, contended that Ford was 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 the automaker of potential problems with the Hydro Boost system, but company executives ignored them and never recalled the truck, Watters said Tuesday in closing arguments.
But after two days of deliberations, the jury of seven women and five men voted that Ford's design of the Hydro Boost system did not cause substantial harm to the Gilchrist family. Although jurors said Ford was negligent for not recalling the F-250 diesel truck, the automaker's negligence did not cause the collision.
Jurors left without commenting, but Gordon said a juror told him that the panel majority sided with Ford's version of the collision because the right front tire of the truck didn't leave a lengthy skid mark.
The left front tire left a long skid mark after it had a blowout right before the collision, Gordon said. But the right tire left only a skid mark on the painted center line, he said.
Apparently, jurors believed Ford's account of the collision -- that the driver of the diesel pickup, Michael Pritchett, steered left into oncoming traffic before hitting the brakes a moment before colliding with Gilchrist's car.
"Evidently, they didn't believe our version, that the truck has anti-lock brakes, so the right wheel kept turning and didn't leave a skid mark," Gordon said.
Gilchrist cried when the verdict was announced in Judge Mark Snauffer's courtroom. Outside court, she said, "Justice wasn't done."
Gilchrist said it was her intent to warn the public "so others wouldn't get hurt or killed."
"We tried to make it known, but big companies always win out," said Gilchrist, who suffered nine broken bones and a head injury in the collision. Her daughter Cambria also had several injuries, including damage to her pancreas.
Watters said he respected the jury's verdict. "We showed them our evidence and made our arguments," he said.
It was the fourth time Watters has sued an automaker and lost. Before Ford, he sued Chrysler, Volkswagen and General Motors, he said.
"They are very difficult to beat. They hire top-notched lawyers and have unlimited resources," Watters said.
Officials from Ford Motor Co. could not be reached to comment, but during the trial, Ford's attorney, Frank Kelly, of San Francisco, told jurors there was nothing wrong with the Hydro Boost system. 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 car.
And once the blowout happened, 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, and "was not the right size or dimension," he said. Therefore, Ford is not responsible for the collision.
But Gordon said a vast majority of drivers would have turned away from oncoming traffic -- just like Pritchett testified in court. When the blowout happened, Pritchett testified he hit the brakes and tried to turn right, but couldn't because the steering wheel had locked up, Gordon said.
Watters had asked the jury to award the Gilchrist family more than $20 million for Brittany and Cambria's future medical bills; wages losses for Brittany, who was a registered nurse at Children's Hospital Central California but is now disabled; 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 argued Ford knew of the Hydro Boost defect for more than 10 years prior to the collision but did nothing to fix it.
In the end, Ford, with total assets of more than $7 billion, doesn't have to pay the Gilchrist family a dime.
"It was a miracle we survived," a trembling Brittany Gilchrist said after the verdict. "But God is good and we are alive."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beecourts on Twitter.