A Kanawha County jury has awarded $7 million to a Raleigh County family that sued Ford Motor Co. alleging the company was at fault when their daughter died in a fiery crash involving the woman’s Mustang and a pickup truck in 2016.
Breanna Bumgarner, 19, died March 22, 2016, after her car was struck in a collision that led to a vehicle fire.
Angel Tyler, Bumgarner’s mother and the administrator of her estate, filed the complaint against the car company in March 2018 in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The lawsuit also named the driver of the other vehicle, Anna Errickson, then a minor, as well as her parents, Mark Errickson and Kristen Errickson.
According to the lawsuit, Anna Errickson was driving a 1989 Toyota pickup west on U.S. 33, near Spencer, when she veered off the highway. As she drove back onto the road, she crossed the center line, striking Bumgarner’s 2014 Ford Mustang in the front left side.
The Mustang caught fire as a result of the collision. During closing arguments Monday, attorneys representing Tyler said Bumgarner was burned alive after becoming entrapped as a result of the collision.
They alleged that the car’s brake fluid reservoir was not sufficiently protected from the crash, which led to the fire. They also alleged that the steel used to make the car’s safety cage, which should have protected the vehicle’s occupants, was made of the same type of steel used in the front and back “crumple zones” of the car.
They also alleged that a 2011 crash test should have indicated to the car company that the brake reservoir would be crushed and the dashboard would come back onto the driver but Ford continued to manufacture the vehicle in the same way for three more years.
James Feeney, an attorney representing Ford, argued that the circumstances of the wreck were different from those of the crash test.
“The plaintiff’s case is built entirely upon the performance of a Ford Mustang in what is called the small overlap rigid barrier test. That test is not this accident,” Feeney said. “This accident has nothing to do with that test. Why do I say that? Because the small overlap barrier test does not occur at 40 degrees into the side of a vehicle. It’s not a vehicle-to-vehicle test. The barrier itself is the equivalent of a pole being struck by a car right at the corner of the vehicle. That’s not our accident.”
He argued that Errickson’s pickup hit the Mustang’s driver-side hinge pillar of the door at an angle, which caused the car’s door to jam and prevented Bumgarner from escaping.
“There was not one engineer, not one medic, not one EMT — no one came to you and testified in this courtroom ... that ... manufacturers are governed by design standards that would require the door to be opened if it is hit at a 40-degree angle by a 3,500-pound light truck at 59 miles an hour,” Feeney said.
The jury’s decision followed a trial that lasted more than two weeks in the courtroom of Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit.
The jury found that the company was negligent in designing the 2014 Mustang with a defect because it was not reasonably safe in preventing leakage from the brake fluid reservoir in the collision, and that the company’s negligence led to Bumgarner’s death.
The jury found that the car company was 99% at fault for Bumgarner’s death and that Errickson was 1% at fault. Errickson already had admitted fault in the case.
Jurors also found that the car company was not negligent in designing the Mustang because it did not prevent entrapment during the collision.
They awarded $2 million for Bumgarner’s “conscious pain and suffering” in the collision and $5 million for Tyler’s sorrow, mental anguish and solace in the death of Bumgarner.
Tyler was represented by Charleston attorneys Farmer, Cline and Campbell, as well as Atlanta-based law firm Beasley Allen.
“This was a product-liability case against a major auto manufacturer,” Brian Bigelow, an attorney with Farmer, Cline and Campbell, said Wednesday morning. “It was a horrible accident, and we are just grateful that the jury worked so hard and listened to all of the evidence and returned what we believe is a just result for a family that lost a loved one.”
In an email Wednesday morning, a media representative for Ford indicated that the company could appeal the jury’s verdict.
“While our sympathies go out to Ms. Bumgarner’s family and we respect the jury’s decision, we do not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence,” Ian Thibodeau, manager of corporate communications for the company, wrote. “We will review options for appeal.”