And there were no media in the courtroom.

Here’s the story, from Adam L. Penenberg, author of Tragic Indifference: One Man’s Battle with the Auto Industry over the Dangers of SUVs.

When a rural Mississippi jury awarded $131 million to the family of a star New York Mets prospect killed when his Ford Explorer rolled over in 2001, there were no reporters present, no bloggers, TV crews or radio stringers. In this age of instantaneous media, when being first is celebrated more than being right, and wire services like Bloomberg trumpet beating the competition by nanoseconds, there are still those rare moments when a major story breaks and no one is there to report it.

The victim was Brian Cole, 22, was a New York Mets prospect. He was killed when his SUV rolled over in the Florida Panhandle as he was headed home to Mississippi.

Ford settled after the jury verdict but before it completed deliberations for punitive damages. According to AP, the terms are confidential, but one assumes more than $131 million. Not explored in this story is why it’s taken almost 10 years to get to this point. And based on Penenberg’s Twitterstream, the classic he said-she said story may minimize the true impact of the story.

Penenberg vented on Twitter and outlined the full story, including damning statistics that I’ve not heard before. I’m making an assumption that the evidence for these claims are in Penenberg’s book (which I just ordered).

  • 1 in 500 Broncos ever produced rolled over, killed someone in the car (tweet)
  • Researching “Tragic Indifference” I learned 1 in 2,700 Ford Explorers built bet 1990 – 2001 rolled over, *killed* someone in the car (tweet)
  • Why was Ford Explorer so dangerous? 1st, built on Ford Ranger pickup assembly lines so too narrow. Also, too high. Roof metal v weak. (tweet)
  • if you took a Ford Explorer from 1990 – 2001, flipped it upside down, lowered on roof, it would cave in from own weight. (tweet)
  • Ford forbid its own test drivers from test driving Explorers in eqarly 1990s because they rolled over, too dangerous. (tweet)
  • MArk Arndt, professional test driver, was testing a Ford Explorer on a test track. The car was outfited with outriggers and reinforced cage. (tweet)
  • Arndt got the Explorer to 70 MPH, the tire tread peeled off as planned, and he lost control. The car shot off road within fraction of a sec. (tweet)
  • Arndt, a pro test driver, never had an outigger break on a test. Until now. The Explorer rolled over so hard the outrigger jammed in ground. (tweet)

A quick Google search shows that this isn’t the first time Ford has lost big in court. In 2004, a San Diego jury awarded $122 million in compensatory damages plus $246 million in punitive damages. In this case, the woman lived.

Plaintiff Benetta Buell-Wilson, 49, had asked for up to $27 million in compensatory damages. Instead the jury awarded her a total of $369 million. She has offered to waive $100 million of the punitive damages if Ford agrees to recall Explorers made between 1990 and 2001 to fix roof defects in those models.

Some more stats from Frontline, “Rollover: The Hidden History of the SUV,” which originally aired 21 February 2002.:

  • In 2000, SUVs had the highest rollover involvement rate of any vehicle type in fatal crashes — 36 percent, as compared with 24 percent for pickups, 19 percent for vans and 15 percent for traffic cars. SUVs also had the highest rollover rate for passenger vehicles in injury crashes — 12 percent, as compared to 7 percent for pickups, 4 percent for vans and 3 percent for passenger cars.
  • The 2002 four-door Explorer model is lower and its wheelbase has been widened by two inches. Former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser tells FRONTLINE that the changes were not made for safety reasons.

From Drivers.com in 2007:

The SUV has been credited with single-handedly saving the U.S. auto industry, with some manufacturers making up to $15,000 in profits on every SUV that rolls off the assembly line. But the SUV has a serious safety problem that has put the public at risk: its tendency to roll over.

[…]

“Rollover” includes footage of a lawsuit deposition in which a Ford engineer reveals that his company knew its first big-selling SUV, the Bronco II, was killing people in rollovers much more often than other SUVs. What’s more, the rollover problem had actually been discovered in early road tests conducted prior to the Bronco II’s release.

To address the problem, Ford engineers recommended lowering the vehicle’s center of gravity and widening its track by two inches to increase its stability. Doing so, however, would have delayed production and pushed back the vehicle’s release date–a decision that would have been extremely costly. Ford executives opted not to make the design change.

And the two-inch change in wheelbase wasn’t made for safety reasons. Right.

I’ve spent less than a half-hour doing Google research and could write a story with far more context than the he-said/she-said journalism that appears in the AP story. This is what is wrong with “news” today. Lack of context.

Tip: ReadWriteWeb.

KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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