Product Liability

Arkansas jury awards $19 million in landmark defective seat belt case

A federal jury in Jonesboro, Arkansas has awarded $19 million to a man who sued Ford Motor Company over defective safety belts. The jury award is believed to be the largest federal verdict over defective seat belt design in the United States.

According to the lawsuit, Eric Polston of Jonesboro, Arkansas was wearing his seat belt while he was driving his 1998 Ford Windstar minivan in December 2005. Polston swerved to avoid hitting a dog in the road, causing his vehicle to leave the road and flip. Polston’s suit alleged that when his Windstar rolled over, the seat belt that was supposed to restrain him failed and he was violently ejected from the vehicle.

Polston’s injuries were severe. After spending weeks in recovery, he was released from the hospital to rebuild his life without the ability to walk. Polston remains paralyzed from the waist down and suffers from paralysis in one arm as well. He also has limited mobility of his other arm and fingers. He was 18 years old when the accident occurred.

Aboutautomobile.com, a website that maintains a database of consumer complaints relating to automotive defects, logged seven customer complaints about the 1998 Ford Windstar, all of which concerned seat belts that wouldn’t operate properly or had some other defective quality. With the exception of the 1995 model year, no other Windstar model years registered as many complaints about the van in general and the seat belts in particular.

Ford argued that the vehicle was not defective in any way and that the company shouldn’t be held liable for Polston’s injuries.

“Our sympathy goes out to Eric Polston for the injuries he suffered as a result of this tragic accident,” a Ford spokeswoman said in an e-mail statement to Arkansas Business. “However, we do not believe it is fair to blame Ford for his injuries. Ford does not agree that the seat belt or the seat belt design was defective in Polston’s vehicle.”

The automaker said it planned to appeal the jury’s verdict.