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The plaintiff in the case, Benetta Buell-Wilson, was injured in 2002 when she swerved to avoid a metal object on a San Diego freeway and lost control of her 1997 Explorer, which then rolled over more than 4 times. The mother of two was paralyzed from the waist down when the roof collapsed on her neck, severing her spine. At trial, Buell-Wilson's attorney argued that the design of the SUV made it prone to rollover incidents and that the roof, as designed, was too weak to withstand that event. The jury agreed and initially awarded Buell-Wilson and her husband $368 million which included $122 million in compensatory damages and $246 million in punitive damages, the largest award ever assessed against the auto maker. The amount was later reduced by the trial and appellate courts.
Punitive damages are awarded when the judge or jury finds willful or malicious conduct by the defendant. These damages are added to the compensatory damages amount which compensates the injured party for actual damages such as medical bills, lost wages and and pain and suffering.
The Buell-Wilson verdict was the first loss at trial in an Explorer rollover case for Ford, which had won 11 previous cases involving the same alleged defects. The auto maker settled additional Explorer rollover cases on the eve of trial. In all, Ford has faced several hundred Explorer rollover accident suits.
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