Product Liability

Jury awards athlete’s family $131 million for defective seat belt, rollover

Nearly ten years after the death of 22-year-old Brian Cole, whose life was cut short when he was thrown from a 2001 Ford Explorer in an accident, a Mississippi jury has awarded the man’s family $131 million in damages. The verdict is the largest award ever against Ford Motor Co. in a lawsuit involving a Ford SUV.

Cole was a former Meridian High School standout and top New York Mets baseball prospect when he was killed on March 31, 2001. According to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, Cole was driving home to Mississippi on I-10 after spring training in Port St. Lucie, Florida, when the fatal accident occurred. Just south of the Florida-Georgia line, Cole veered to avoid colliding with another vehicle, causing his own vehicle to roll over more than three times. Cole was thrown from the Explorer because of a defective safety belt, the lawsuit asserted. He later died at a Florida hospital.

Cole’s 17-year-old cousin Ryan Cole survived the crash with serious injuries. The jury awarded him $1.5 million in compensatory damages.

The lawsuit blamed Brian Cole’s death on a defective safety belt and also on the lateral instability of the Ford Explorer, a design flaw that allows the vehicle to roll over more easily than most other SUVs.

This trial was the Cole family’s third attempt to win an award against Ford. The two previous trials resulted in hung juries. The Jasper County jury returned with a $131 million verdict after the compensatory phase of the case. Ford settled for an undisclosed amount during the punitive damage phase.

Cole, a 1997 Meridian High graduate, was one of three Mississippi prep athletes to hit four home runs in a game, a state record. He was also an accomplished football player at Meridian High.

Mets officials said Cole was one of their top three prospects. The major league team projected he would be a starter for them at the start of the 2003 baseball season.

Ford severed a long-standing partnership with Firestone in 2001 after several tire blowouts triggered rollover accidents, causing numerous fatalities and injuries to drivers and occupants of Explorer SUVs.