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Ford Cleared in Va. Suit over Air Bags

A jury in Fairfax County, Virginia found that Ford Motor Co. was not negligent in its design of an airbag that allegedly left a woman partially blind when it deployed in an accident.

The seven-person jury deliberated for 8 hours before reaching a verdict in favor of Ford and the dealership that sold the 1995 Ford Escort in which Berta Benitez was riding when it collided with another vehicle.

Benitez, 44, is a housekeeper who was on her way to work in 1999 when the Escort was struck by a minivan. According to ophthalmologists who testified during the 13-day trial, Benitez's injuries caused permanent blindness in her left eye and cataracts in her right eye.

Experts testifying for the plaintiff said the passenger air bag in 1995 Escorts deployed at a speed of about 200 mph and are not tethered as air bags are on the driver's side. Shorter women such as Benitez are particularly vulnerable because the air bag inflates in their faces, not in their chests as they do for larger people, they said.

Virginia law would not allow testimony by witnesses who also contend that they were injured by air bag deployments in 1995 Escorts.

Attorneys for Ford argued that the Escort air bags met contemporary federal standards and were designed to prevent or minimize head and neck injuries.  They contended that all air bags carry some risk of injury, and that the air bag probably prevented more serious injuries, such as paralysis.

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