It was a horrible accident no matter how you look at it, when a husband and wife, their two young sons and the boys’ cousin were tossed from their 1994 Ford Explorer. They all sustained life-altering injuries, including paralysis for the pregnant mother of two riding in the front seat.
The family, Agop and Catherine Gozukara, their children and a cousin, sued the Ford Motor Co. and Tustin-based Joe MacPherson Ford, the dealership that sold them their sport utility vehicle. Although they reached a $14.9 million settlement, both sides in the case are claiming victory.
And someone has to pay. In this case, that someone is Joe MacPherson Ford, which settled before the trial went into the damages phase. The company agreed to pay $9.4 million to the couple. The California department of Transportation settled before trial to add another $5.5 million.
But defense counsel for the car manufacturer sees things differently. “This lawsuit should’ve never been brought against Ford,” Daniel S. Rodman of Irvine’s Snell & Wilmer and co-cousel for Ford says. “The jury found this car’s design had nothing to do with this accident. Ford is not at fault.”
According to Mardirossian, because the jury ruled in a special verdict that the Ford Explorer has a “defect in design” based on its propensity to roll over, the verdict is a milestone that will be used in future rollover cases involving the Explorer.
“It’s unfortunate that Ford keeps hiding their head in the sand like an ostrich, thinking that this SUV is safe,” Mardirossian says.
Ford maintained throught the trial, and even after the jury’s verdict, that the Explorer’s design had nothing to do with Gozukaras’ accident. “The jury’s verdict, exonerated Ford legally and financially for the cause of this action,” William J. Contory who serves as Ford’s national counsel, says. “At the end of the day, the plaintiffs’ attorney are probably going to be sending us a check for costs. We’ll be sending them a bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“They still got nailed for the defect,” Charles B. O’Reilly of Marina del Rey’s O’Reilly & Hobart, attorney for Agop Gozukara, says.
“Shake, Shake, Shake, Vibrate Car”
When O’Reilly joined Mardirossian on this case, they didn’t realize at the outset how much time they would be spending together in courtroom in Barstow. “That time in Barstow was the best lawyering experience I’ve had so far,” O’Reilly says. His research in preparation for the case made him almost an expert on the history of Ford Explorer’s design, he says.
The trial lasted four months. In that time, numerous witnesses took the stand to argue whether it was the Explorer’s design, the car dealership’s failure to repair a vibration in the Gozukaras’ Explorer, a big-rig truck’s swerve or Agop Gozukara’s Driving that cause the accident.
On May 24, 1997, the Gozukaras were driving from their home in Newport Beach to Las Vegas on the I-15 that runs through Barstow. Agop Gozukara, 41, drove with his pregnant wife, Catherine Gozukara, 40, in the front passenger seat. Their 10-year-old son, Michael, and his cousin, Sayat, 10, were in the back seat along with Michael’s brother, Alain, who was less than a year old.
As they approached a construction detour in the road, Agop was in the passing lane when he says a big-rig truck in the right-hand lane swerved towared his SUV. When Agop applied the brakes, he claimed the vehicle began to shake violently- a problem it had exhibited in the past- and he lost control of the vehicle. He hit a concrete barrier erected by Caltrans, called a K-wall. The vehicle jumped up onto the wall, rode on top of it for about 100 feet, then flipped over into the oncoming lanes, when it rolled several times. Everyone except Catherine Gozukara, who was not wearing her seat belt, was ejected from the vehicle right away. She rolled in the SUV several times before finally popping out of the window. Catherine Gozukara broke her vertebra, her scapula and her leg, and was rendered a paraplegic. Agop Gozukara suffered severe leg fractures and still has trouble walking.
Conroy argued that the design of the vehicle didn’t cause it to roll over in this case. Rather, the vehicle flipped over because it hit the Caltrans barrier and the way in which it hit the wall. “When this Explorer hit that conrete barrier at a speed in excess of 60 miles an hour, the conrete barrier had an effect like a skateboard ramp,’ Conroy said, according to court documents.
But the Medical examiner who was first to arrive after the accident, Pat apacoda, helped convince the jury that the vehicle’s vibration problem, for which the Gozukaras had repeatedly taken the car to the dealership to have fixed, was the true cause of the accident. “Apacoda got to the scene and asked Agop questions about what happened,” O’Reilly says. “Apacoda explained, ‘He had very bad English and a strong accent, but he finally said and showed me with his hands, ‘Shake, shake, vibrate car.”‘
‘A High-Tech Auto Shop’
O’Reilly and Mardirossian faced six attorneys during trial – three for Ford and three for MacPherson – and relied on a mountain of evidence to prove the accident was no the Gozukaras’ fault.
“We basically contended that the dealership knowingly sold the used vehicle with a vibration problem in the front end, which they didn’t fix despite it being brough in several times, and that’s what cause the accident,” O’Reilly says. “Against Ford,” he continues, “we contended that the vehicle shouldn’t have rolled when it came off the k-rail, but it did because the center of gravity was too high.”
According to Judge John P. Vander Feer, presidnet over his firt jury trial involving the Ford Motor Co., the size and number of exhibits was astounding.
“There were a total of 527 marked exhibits,” Vander Feer says. “My courtroom was filled with electronic media, wires and vehicle parts. [It] began to look and smell … like a high-tech auto shop.”
O’Reilly used videos of prototype Ford Explorers running thorugh tests and flipping onto their sides to talk about how sensitive the vehicle is, and how easily it could flip. “We had documents from Ford that showed they knew the Explorer was so touchy that little things like changing the air pressure in the tires by 1 or 2 pounds could cause it to roll over,” he says.
Ford attorneys dispute that claim. “They repeatedly showed the jurors videotape of prototype Ford Explorers rolling over, yet never told the jury those were prototype vehicles, in which the design was subsequently changed,” Rodman says.
O’Reilly remains unconvinced. “Ford claims they altered the Explorer’s design since the prototype, but they have no documents to prove that they made those changes,” O’Reilly says.
Who’s to Blame?
After listening to four months’ worth of experts and witnesses to Gozukaras’ accident, the jury had a difficult time deciding who was to blame. “The jury came back and originally said they were dead-locked,” Mardirossian says, “so we were very nervous.”
“It was an ordeal,” defense counsel Philip G. Dorn of Santa Ana’s Lawson, Macrae, Gress & Culbertson says. Dorn represented Joe MacPherson Ford in the case. “At one time the jury was hung, and we were winning. I guess those who believed the plaintiffs conviced those who were on our side,” he says. In the end, the jury wrote in a special verdict that the Explorer has “a defect in design,” but they found zero liability for Ford.
“We are very pleased with the jury’s findings,” Rodman says. “This jury did find the design was defective, but these are very technical and complex issues that lay people are asked to decide. They found the design had nothing to do with the accident in this case.” What they did find was that Joe MacPherson Ford knowingly sold a vehicle with a vibration problem to the Gozukaras and that the dealership’s mechanics failed to fix the problem, which ultimately led to the accident.
The jury deemed the dealership 90 percent liable for Agop Gozukara’s injuries and 89 percent liable for Catherine Gozukara’s. Catherine Gozukara was held responsible for 10 percent of the blame for her injuries because she was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. Caltrans was found 1 percent at fault for negligent construction of the freeway on which the accident occurred.
“We thought we had a strong case for the defense, and if we didn’t, we’d throw significant negligence onto the plaintiffs, so we thought the best thing to do was settle if we could,” Dorn says. “We gave $8 million to Catherine and $1.4 million to Agop.”
Upon hearing the verdict, the Gozukaras broke down in the courtroom. “They really don’t like reliving this because in a matter of five seconds their life was changed forever,” O’Reilly says. “But they were both pretty happy. Because of the way this turned they will be able to cover their medical treatments.”
Now Mardirossian feels the jury’s verdict with regard to the Explorer’s “defective design,” will allow similar cases to move forward against Ford.
“This is a resounding victory for plaintiffs across the country,” he says, “because they can use that portion of the verdict in other cases. This is a watershed in terms of establishing precedent.”