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Fla. House Panel Passes Crash Bill

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 9, 2011 --

A controversial measure insulating Ford Motor Co. and other automakers in product liability cases passed its first House panel on Wednesday, but not before being changed to blunt its impact on crash cases in which a jury determines the automobile defect was the cause of injury.

In a vote closely watched by business groups and plaintiff’s attorneys, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee approved the business-backed measure (HB 201) that supporters say is needed to reverse a 2001 Florida Supreme Court opinion that has put automakers, especially Ford, on the hook for millions in lawsuit damages.

Following more than two hours of testimony and debate, the panel unanimously approved the measure but made changes over the objections of business groups to hold automakers solely responsible for damages resulting from faulty design or manufacture.

In 2001, the state’s highest court ruled in D’Amario v. Ford Motor Co. that the driver’s condition leading up to the crash was irrelevant when considering divvying up damages for enhanced injuries caused by defects in the vehicle.

The committee on Wednesday considered a bill by Rep. Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, that originally would have allowed jurors in auto defect cases to again hear evidence to determine if the driver, or others, were partially at fault and should be responsible for a portion of the damage payments. The bill is backed by business groups who want car companies to be able to put part of the blame in those cases on drivers or other entities.

But a last minute change was approved to prevent such splitting of damages except in cases in which the cause of the injuries could not clearly be determined.

Backers of the amendment, by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said allowing automakers to delve deeply into events leading up to a crash would cloud the issue of product liability. A car that explodes after impact, they argued, is faulty regardless of the actions leading up to the crash, such as whether the driver fell asleep or was drunk.

Without the changes, Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, said automakers could sway jurors by putting evidence forward that draws attention away from the defect that caused the enhanced injury.

“There have been focus groups,” Steinberg said. “If you put a drunk driver on the verdict form…. they become a scapegoat.”

Big business backers of the original measure say Florida is one of a minority of states that excludes such information in auto crash worthiness cases. Without evidence showing how a driver’s actions may have contributed to the injury, automakers say they are being hamstrung in their defense. Further, they are held responsible for all damage payments.

“We have serious, grave concerns over the amendment,” said George Meros, an attorney representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We believe everyone should be responsible for the injuries they inflict.”

Ford says the number of cases has skyrocketed since the state’s highest court in 2001 ruled that the events leading up to the crash were irrelevant in auto defect cases.

“We have a jury system, “said Doug Lampe, an attorney for Ford. “They determine who is wrong and who should pay.”

The bill now travels to the House Judiciary Committee. A similar bill (SB 142) by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, awaits action in the Senate Budget Committee. The Senate version still allows additional evidence to be included in all auto crash defect trials.


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