Staten Island SUV Rollover Lawsuit Results in $8.6 Million Judgment Against Ford

Two victims of an <"">SUV rollover accident have been awarded $8.6 million for the psychological damage they suffered as a result of the tragedy, which also killed two of their relatives. The decision by a Staten Island, New York judge reverses the decision made by a  jury  five months ago, which had found that Ford Motor Credit Company and Ford Motor Company were not liable for the death of Gary Motelson’s older son or the injuries Motelson and his younger son suffered.  Ford Motor Credit was the owner and lessor of the SUV, while Ford Motor manufactured the vehicle.

The accident in question occurred in July of 2001, while Motelson and his sons were among four passengers in a 1998 Explorer driven by Gary’s father, Steven Motelson.  They were returning from a Boy Scout camping trip when the vehicle overturned on Route 17 in upstate New York.  Steven Motelson was killed, as was Gary’s 9-year-son.  Another 21-year-old passenger, Gary Motelson and his 5-year-old boy survived. 

In their lawsuit, the Motelson’s claimed that the SUV suddenly accelerated and lost its brakes as Steven Motelson struggled to regain control. Ford blamed the crash on the driver, claiming that the elder Motelson allowed the vehicle to drift off the road.  The company said the SUV went careening when he overcompensated on the steering wheel.

In March, a jury found that a defectively designed roof-support system on the SUV caused Steven Motelson’s death, and awarded $6.5 million to his widow and estate.  But the jury said that the Ford SUV was not to blame for injuries sustained by Gary Motelson and his son, or for the death of his oldest son.

In the case of the boys – as well as the other passenger – the jury found that none were wearing their seatbelts when they were ejected from the SUV.  Gary Motelson was sitting in the passenger-front seat, where the roof did not fail, according to the jury.

But  Justice Joseph J. Maltese said jurors in March had failed to consider the “extreme emotional distress” that the plaintiffs suffered as a result  of witnessing their loved ones’ deaths, while they were also  exposed to the same dangerous conditions in the Ford vehicle.

Maltese awarded Gary Motelson $3.2 million and his younger son $5.4 million for medical and psychiatric care, as well as for past and future pain and suffering.  The Judge wrote that while jurors had found Ford not responsible for the younger boy’s physical injuries, the panel “failed to discern the difference” between those injuries and the psychological trauma he endured in witnessing the death of his older brother and grandfather. The boy was in the so-called “zone of danger,” which legally means, he, too, was threatened with bodily harm created by the defendant’s negligence and entitled to compensation, the judge said.

“As to the extreme emotional distress suffered by [the boy], it is irrelevant whether he was wearing a seat belt,” Maltese wrote in his 19-page decision.

The judge said Gary Motelson, likewise, was entitled to recover damages. He also awarded $150,000 to Gary Motelson’s wife for loss of consortium.

Maltese also reduced the award the jury granted to the widow and estate of Steven Motelson.  He cut the award to the estate by $173,000, to $1.3 million, ruling that the jury had overestimated the victim’s potential future earnings. He also reduced. Motelson’s widow’s award from $5 million to $3.7 million, saying part of it duplicated the estate award.

In total Ford has been ordered to pay $13.8 million to the various plaintiffs, but that amount could grow.  That’s because Ford must also pay statutory interest of 9 percent going back to the date of incident and the filing of the lawsuit in 2001.  If the award is upheld on appeal – and Ford says it does plan to appeal the verdict – it would be largest judgment ever issues by a Staten Island Court in a single incident.

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