James J. Kilpatrick

Late on a January afternoon five years ago, Benetta Wilson was driving her 1997 Ford Explorer on Interstate 8 a few miles east of San Diego. A tragic accident left her a paraplegic. Let me quote from the opinion of Justice Gilbert Nares last July in the California Court of Appeal:

"Suddenly, Mrs. Wilson saw what appeared to be a metal object break loose from a motor home in front of her and bounce directly toward her windshield. As she swerved to avoid the object, the wheels on the passenger side lifted from the road, and the Explorer went out of control. The vehicle fishtailed multiple times across lanes and rolled 4 1/2 times, coming to rest on its roof on the road's shoulder ...

"As the Explorer rolled, the roof's pillars and rails crumpled, and the roof crushed down more than 10 inches, causing severe injuries to Mrs. Wilson. Inside the vehicle, she hung upside down from her seatbelt, in 'crushing, unbelievable pain,' gasping for breath and feeling as if her life were fading away ...

"The compressive forces from the collapsing roof fractured and severed Mrs. Wilson's spine at the T12 level, where the thoracic and lumbar regions meet. She will never recover sensation or function below the level of the injury. In addition to the vertebral fractures, the spinal sac was damaged, causing leaking of cerebral spinal fluid, and portions of the spinal cord and nerve root were pulverized ...

"Mrs. Wilson's resulting paraplegia ended her active life and forced her to painfully relearn basic aspects of daily living, some of which she will never regain. She lives in severe and constant pain. ... Before the accident, Mrs. Wilson was an active, athletic, outdoors woman, with a black belt in martial arts. She often camped and hiked with her family, backpacked with Girls and Boy Scouts, and did projects at Mission Trails Regional Park. She and her husband took dancing lessons, traveled and took walks. She no longer can engage in any of the lifestyle activities she once enjoyed. ...

"The injuries to his wife dramatically changed Mr. Wilson's life as well. The Wilsons no longer share the physical relationship they had prior to the accident. Instead, he is now her caregiver and must assist her with the most personal of care, including showering and catheterizing her."

There is much more. This was a life-destroying accident.

The Wilsons sued Ford Motor Co. and its San Diego dealer. A state jury brought in a judgment against them of $368 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the award to $150 million. The Court of Appeal trimmed this back to $78 million. From that reduced judgment Ford now appeals to the Supreme Court.


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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