Image: Dennis Schoville and Benetta Buell-Wilson.
Lenny Ignelzi  /  AP
Attorney Dennis Schoville, left, talks to his client Benetta Buell-Wilson, right, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a Ford Explorer rollover accident in 2002, after a jury ordered Ford Motor Co. to pay at least $122 million to his client.
updated 6/4/2004 7:27:40 AM ET 2004-06-04T11:27:40

A jury has ordered Ford Motor Co. to pay nearly $369 million to a woman paralyzed in a rollover accident involving a Ford Explorer, the nation's best-selling sport-utility vehicle.

The San Diego County jury ordered the No. 2 automaker on Thursday to pay $246 million in punitive damages, after awarding more than $122.6 million in compensatory damages on Tuesday.

The award is one of the biggest ever against the automaker and marked the first loss after 11 victories in rollover lawsuits involving the Ford Explorer.

Ford, based in Dearborn, Mich., has said it will appeal.

The trial, which began March 15, involved a January 2002 accident on an interstate highway near Alpine, east of San Diego. The driver, Benetta Buell-Wilson, swerved to avoid a metal object and lost control of her 1997 Explorer, which rolled 4 1/2 times.

Buell-Wilson, a 49-year-old San Diego mother of two, offered to knock $100 million off the damage award if Ford would fix the design problems in the Explorer that left her permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

"I'm hoping they'll fix what's out there because I don't want what's happened to me to happen to anyone else," Buell-Wilson said Thursday.

In a statement, Ford insisted the Explorer was safe.

"Although the offer makes a great sound bite, it doesn't change the facts: The Explorer meets or exceeds all federal safety standards. There is no defect with the Explorer," spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said. "The Explorer is an outstanding vehicle with a solid safety record and we will continue to aggressively defend our products."

Ford has sold more than 5 million Explorers since the vehicle was introduced in 1990.

Dennis Schoville, Buell-Wilson’s attorney, contended Ford had sacrificed passenger safety for profits. The lawsuit involved design issues found on all Explorers made through 2001, Schoville said.

Schoville said Ford declined to follow its engineers’ suggestions to widen the Explorer’s wheel track or to lower its center of gravity — costly changes that would make the vehicle more stable. Concern about costs also kept Ford from sufficiently reinforcing the Explorer’s roof to protect passengers in a vehicle “they know is going to roll over,” he said.

“This is an important message because there are a lot of people out there that are driving these vehicles that don’t have, like Mrs. Wilson, any clue of what could happen,” Schoville said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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