By Andale Gross
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a new trial in a case that alleges flaws in the Ford Crown Victoria's fuel system caused a fiery crash of a state patrol car.
The court said the trial court erred by not allowing the plaintiffs' attorneys to speak about similar crashes after the one in 2003 that killed Trooper Michael Newton and injured his passenger, a man Newton had stopped for a traffic violation.
Those crashes also involved fuel leaks from Ford Crown Victoria police cars. Ford attorneys introduced evidence at trial about six crashes after the Missouri trooper's death, despite a judge's ruling not to, and neither side could make arguments about it.
Ford attorney Doug Lampe said Tuesday that Ford viewed it as unlikely the jury was aware of the omission and, therefore, didn't base its verdict on it. He said a new trial will give Ford "another opportunity to defend the vehicle."
The crash happened when a truck slammed into the back of the patrol car, parked on the shoulder of Interstate 70 in western Missouri. A jury decided in 2005 that Ford was not liable, but awarded damages against the truck driver's employer. Because a pretrial agreement capped the employer's liability, the trooper's family and the injured motorist received about $500,000 each, minus attorneys' fees.
Attorney Edward "Chip" Robertson Jr., who represented the plaintiffs in their appeal, said the plaintiffs' trial attorneys had wanted to highlight that fiery crashes were a risk even after Ford retrofitted the vehicles with a protective shield around the gas tank, as had been done for the trooper's car. They wanted to argue that Ford should have moved the gas tanks elsewhere, instead of leaving the tanks on the rear side of the back axle.
The case now goes back to Jackson County Circuit Court for a new trial date, he said.
Crown Victorias have been the focus of legal battles for years, with municipalities around the country alleging that they explode too easily in rear collisions. More than a dozen law enforcement officers nationwide have been killed in fiery crashes in Crown Victorias since 1983.
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The federal government investigated the cars' safety following fiery crashes in the 1990s. Findings released in 2002 by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration revealed no defect in the vehicle.