Multi-Million Dollar Jury Verdict Against Ford Vacated Based on Defective Jury Verdict Form

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In this secondary exposure case alleging mesothelioma, defendant Ford Motor Company appealed after the jury rendered a verdict against it for $3.4 million. The appellate court vacated the trial court’s judgment on the jury verdict and remanded the case because the jury verdict form was defective, in that it omitted two necessary questions in product liability cases — that the product at issue was unreasonably dangerous or defective and that the plaintiff’s injuries were reasonably foreseeable.

Plaintiff Ronnie Stockton was an automobile mechanic since 1971. He had his own shop where he worked on Ford vehicles. His wife, Joyce Stockton, cleaned the shop and laundered his clothes. The plaintiffs initially filed suit in Illinois, where Ford was dismissed on forum non conveniens grounds. The plaintiffs then filed suit in Tennessee.

Ford argued Mr. Stockton repeatedly received warnings that brakes and other components contained asbestos. Ford presented evidence at trial that he received training regarding working with asbestos-containing automotive products, and received manuals warning of same. Ford argued the duty to warn Mrs. Stockton fell to her husband, because Ford had no employer-employee relationship with the plaintiffs. At trial, the plaintiffs argued that Ford should have warned Mr. Stockton. The jury returned a verdict stating that Ford was negligent in failing to adequately warn Joyce Stockton. The court addressed two of the four issues raised by Ford on its appeal.

First, the court analyzed whether the jury instructions were in error. Here, the jury instructions did not fully encapsulate Tennessee law on negligence in product liability cases. The plaintiff must establish that the product was defective or unreasonably dangerous at the time the product left the control of the manufacturer, which these instructions did not do because they broadly stated that the jury must determine “negligence.” The instructions did not inform the jury that such negligence must rest on an initial finding that Ford’s brake products were unreasonably dangerous or defective. Further, the jury’s verdict was inconsistent, because the jury could not reach agreement that the plaintiffs had proven that Ford’s products were defective or unreasonably dangerous.

Second, the court examined whether Tennessee law extended a duty upon product manufacturers to warn family members of remote users. The court discussed various prior holdings in determining the issue of foreseeability. Here, the trial court did not conclude, as a matter of law, that there was no duty owed by Ford to Mrs. Stockton. The trial court’s decision to allow the case to go forward on the element of duty was not error, but breach and causation were not determined. The court remanded with specific questions to be included on the verdict form for the jury to answer.

Read the full decision here.