Md. crash victim awarded $26 million Lawsuit faulted Ford on safety of pickup

November 14, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore Circuit jury yesterday gave one of the largest damage awards in the history of the city court -- $26 million -- to a Frederick man who claimed he lost his arm and leg in an accident because Ford Motor Co. failed to install a $1 safety device on his pickup truck.

John Wasilik, a landscape foreman, was driving his 1987 Ford F-150 truck on Valentine's Day 1995 when a Toyota driven by Alvin Rehert of Silver Spring crossed the center line of Route 97 near the border of Montgomery and Howard counties. The truck burned, with Wasilik trapped inside, conscious, for several minutes as bystanders tried to free him, his attorney, Deborah Potter, said last night.

Wasilik's right arm and leg were later amputated.

Yesterday, the jury awarded Wasilik $26 million for his expenses and pain and suffering after hearing testimony that a simple check valve would have minimized the fire that so transformed the 26-year-old man's life.

Potter argued that the fire was fed when gasoline seeped from the truck's fuel tanks. That wouldn't have happened, she said, if Ford had installed an anti-siphoning device that would have cost less than $1 per vehicle to install. In fact, she said, the company used the device on other 1987 models -- but not on its trucks.

In a statement released last night, Ford representatives blamed Wasilik's injuries on Rehert, saying the vehicles collided head-on at a combined speed of 90 mph to 100 mph.

"Wasilik sustained tragic and terrible injuries in an accident that was not his fault," the statement said. "Ford believes that the product defect allegations in this case lack merit and that the jury was swayed by overwhelming sympathy for Wasilik for the injuries he has sustained."

The company noted that it expected the award to be reduced to the $11.9 million that would cover Wasilik's medical expenses and lost wages, plus the $500,000 maximum allowed for noneconomic damages under Maryland law. And an appeal of the verdict is possible.

Potter said she would oppose the imposition of the noneconomic cap. "For someone who is paralyzed, the cap is unfair," she said.

Dean Pappas, an attorney for Rehert, declined to comment on the case last night.

Ford's experts testified that the fire was fed not by gasoline but by brake fluid, meaning that a check valve would not have prevented the injury, Potter said. By contrast, Wasilik's experts claimed 12 to 16 gallons of gasoline fed the fire.

The case was tried in Baltimore because Ford does business in the city. Ford attorneys attempted to have it heard in Montgomery County, court records show.

Potter said she was surprised at the size of the verdict, which exceeds the $21.4 million a Baltimore Circuit jury awarded last year in a case brought against a blue jeans manufacturer.

Wasilik is confined to a wheelchair, still undergoes physical therapy twice a week and is unable to work. And while he hoped the verdict would save other lives, he said it would not make his whole: "There's no amount of money can replace your limbs."

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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