Roof Strength on Older Ford Trucks Called Into Question by $1.7 Billion Jury Verdict

A $1.7 billion jury verdict against

Ford Motor Co.

F -1.67%

involving a fatal truck crash called into question the roof strength of older-model Super Duty pickups sold by the company over a roughly 17-year period.

On Friday, a jury in Georgia reached a verdict in a case involving a 2014 rollover of a Ford F-250 pickup truck that left two people dead.

The Gwinnett County jury determined that punitive damages should be imposed on Ford for selling 5.2 million Super Duty trucks with what the plaintiffs’ attorneys said were dangerously weak roofs that could crush passengers in a rollover accident, according to James Butler, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case.

The case was brought by the family of a Georgia couple, Melvin and Voncile Hill, who were driving a 2002 Ford F-250 Super Duty truck from their farm when the right front tire blew out and the truck rolled over, Mr. Butler said. The Hills were crushed inside the truck, he added.

Ford Chief Executive Jim Farley said last month that the company continues to be hampered by recalls and customer-satisfaction actions.


Nic Antaya/EPA/Shutterstock

“While our sympathies go out to the Hill family, we don’t believe the verdict is supported by the evidence, and we plan to appeal,” Ford said Sunday. “In the meantime, we aren’t going to litigate this matter through the news media.”

The $1.7 billion verdict is believed to be one of the biggest in Georgia history and is unusually large for an accident-related lawsuit involving an auto manufacturer. Typically, damages in these types of cases run in the millions of dollars, and many are settled out of court. Often, high-dollar verdicts are later reduced by judges or the appeals courts.

“The Hill family is glad this part of the case is finally over,” Mr. Butler said. “They intend to persevere and make Ford pay.”

The lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the roofs on the 1999-2016 Super Duty trucks were defectively designed and dangerously weak and that Ford allegedly knew of the dangers posed by the roofs.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed to evidence they said showed the roof on these trucks failed in the company’s own internal testing and that Ford engineers developed a stronger roof for its Super Duty pickups in 2004 but that roof wasn’t used in trucks sold to customers until the 2017 model year, according to court documents.

The pretrial order states that Ford has identified 162 lawsuits and 83 similar incidents of the roof crush involving the 1999-2016 Super Duty trucks.

Ford, responding to the allegations, argued that the tire installed on the truck had the incorrect load-carrying capacity, which led the tire to catastrophically fail, according to court records.

Additionally, Ford argued that after the tire ruptured, Mr. Hill improperly steered his truck, causing it to leave the roadway at a “dangerous angle.” The Hills also improperly used their seat belts, Ford said in the lawsuit.

The Ford pickup truck driven by Melvin and Voncile Hill when it crashed.


James Butler

The trial lasted three weeks. The lawsuit was initially tried in 2018 and ended in a mistrial. In Georgia, three-quarters of proceeds from punitive damages cases are awarded to the state. The remaining 25% is divided between the plaintiffs and attorneys.

On Thursday, the Georgia jury awarded plaintiffs Kim and Adam Hill, the children of the couple who died in the crash, $24 million in compensatory damages, Mr. Butler said. The jury allocated 70% of fault in the case to Ford, Mr. Butler said.

The remaining 30% of damages went against Pep Boys-Manny Moe & Jack, a tire distributor that the plaintiffs’ lawyers say mistakenly installed the wrong tire size on the Hills’ truck.

“We extend our continued sympathies to the Hill family for their loss,” Pep Boys said. “Consistent with our steadfast commitment to our customers, Pep Boys and the legal counsel for the Hill family worked together to resolve our part in the matter over five years ago.”

A Pep Boys spokeswoman said a separate case involving the tire distributor and the Hill family was resolved with a settlement in early 2018.

Ford executives have for years worked to tackle costly quality and warranty problems with their vehicles, including making this effort a priority under the current chief executive,

Jim Farley.

The company has issued 49 recalls this year, the most of any auto maker, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We continue to be hampered by recalls and customer-satisfaction actions,” Mr. Farley said on a July earnings call. “This affects our cost but more importantly, it falls short on our most fundamental commitment to our customers.”

It couldn’t be determined whether the quality issues that the company is trying to address have anything to do with the Georgia accident.

Last year, Ford set aside more than $4 billion for warranty costs, up 76% from five years earlier. The car company’s total warranty expenses increased about 17% from 2016 to 2021.

Earlier this year, Mr. Farley brought on a new executive director of quality,

Josh Halliburton.

Before coming to Ford, Mr. Halliburton spent 17 years at J.D. Power, an independent research firm that specializes in assessing and studying vehicle quality.

“We are placing more time and emphasis on ensuring everything is done right upfront to prevent quality issues from manifesting later in the development process,” Mr. Halliburton said.

He added that he expects to see Ford’s warranty problems improve next year, but that it might take two to three years to see results with the most impact.

Write to Nora Eckert at

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