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Dennis Stokes, As Personal Representative v. Ford Motor Company

February 12, 2013

DENNIS 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.



APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DV 05-1236 Honorable Russell C. Fagg, Presiding Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Jim Rice

Submitted on Briefs: November 14, 2012

Decided: February 12, 2013

Filed:

Clerk

Justice Jim Rice delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶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?

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶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.*fn1 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.*fn2 The District Court entered judgment accordingly, and Stokes appeals.

ΒΆ10 Additional facts will be ...


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