The $131M Ford Rollover Death Verdict That Twitter Broke

Fast Company's Adam L. Penenberg tweets the breaking news about a verdict against Ford in the death of rising Mets star Brian Cole. As reporters lagged behind on the story, Penenberg discovered a new media use for the 140-character format.

When a rural Mississippi jury awarded $131 million to the family of a star New York Mets prospect killed when his Ford Explorer rolled over in 2001, there were no reporters present, no bloggers, TV crews or radio stringers. In this age of instantaneous media, when being first is celebrated more than being right, and wire services like Bloomberg trumpet beating the competition by nanoseconds, there are still those rare moments when a major story breaks and no one is there to report it.

And this was a major story. It involved a top New York Mets prospect, Brian Cole, who former Mets General Manager Jim Duquette predicted would become a major league star, joining Jose Reyes and David Wright as the cornerstones of the team for years to come. Cole was traveling from spring training when the Ford Explorer he was driving rolled over, killing him. His cousin, also in the car, walked away from the accident relatively unscathed.

There are a number of reasons why this case is special: As any plaintiff's attorney will tell you, death cases are almost always worth far less than injury cases. It's simple math: Paying for 30 years of care for a quadriplegic—it can reach several hundred thousand dollars a year—costs far more than paying most people's estimated lifetime earnings. Cole's case was different. The Mets stipulated that it had projected that Cole would be a star and earn more than $100 million in salary over his career. Then you had the defendant: Ford, which normally settles these kinds of cases. The third wild card was the plaintiff's lead attorney, Tab Turner, a one-man litigation machine who has settled more than $1 billion in rollover cases with Ford over the past two decades. He is perhaps Ford's greatest nemesis.

So you have a $131 million verdict against a major corporation by a jury that found that one of its most popular (and profitable vehicles) was essentially defective, a future NY Mets star whose life was tragically cut short, a top litigator, and no media coverage?

Enter Twitter and an idea expounded upon recently by William Gibson in a New York Times op-ed piece. His subject is Google and its CEO Eric Schmidt's controversial statement that people want Google to tell them what to do next. He suggests that Google is not just a very big corporation but us, "individual retinal cells of the surveillant." Social media's like that. Usually journalists report. Twitter responds. And then journalists, particularly on the 24-hour cable news networks, trot out social media chatter as self-congratulation or faux populism. In this case, social media was the vehicle by which the most relevant reporting rose to the top—the rare instance when the most trusted name in news was Twitter.

I found out about it when a representative of Tab Turner called me minutes after the jury came back with the verdict. In 2003 I had published a book, Tragic Indifference, which detailed the whole Ford and Firestone debacle of the late 1990s into 2001. Turner played a major role in the narrative, and Michael Douglas optioned the book with the intent to produce a movie and star as Tab Turner. (It's still in what Hollywood suits call "deep development.") When I searched online for articles on the verdict, there were none. The only mention of Ford on The New York Times home page was an advertisement for the Ford Fusion. Nothing on the wires, blogs, or Google News.

So I got on Twitter, dashing off a two-hour burst of tweets about the case and why it was big news. I told the horrific tales of rollover accident victims and shared some of my reporting on the Ford Explorer, which Ford's own internal documents showed was dangerously unstable. I offered context for the verdict, linked to previous articles on two earlier trials that had ended in hung juries, and berated journalists for not getting on the story. I was live tweeting my reporting and analysis simultaneously, using micro blogging as my publisher, which was, as the Muck Rack Daily would put it the next day, "a very interesting use of Twitter."

Partway through my Tweetapoolaza, the first news story—a tiny article—appeared on a local Mississippi newspaper site. Then came an Associated Press piece and a post on ESPN. The New York Daily News tweeted me back, promising me they were on the case. The next day, though, there was only a brief three-sentence mention of the case and muted coverage of it elsewhere. Most of it was of the "he said, she said" sort of journalism: a lede ($131 million verdict against Ford the fact the two sides settled before punitive damages could be accessed), a quote from Tab Turner speaking for the family, and a quote from Ford blaming the driver. Other stories focused on Cole as a baseball prospect. None of them explained what the real problem was: The Ford Explorer.

There is ample proof that more than 4 million Ford Explorers were dangerously unstable and prone to rolling over at far higher rates than other vehicles, including other popular SUVs. In fact, according to government accident statistics, one in every 2,700 Ford Explorers built between 1990 and 2001 (when Ford finally reengineered the vehicle) rolled over and killed at least one person in the car.

The figures for the Ford Bronco II, the precursor of the Ford Explorer, are even more frightening: one in 500 Bronco IIs ever produced was involved in a fatal rollover. But you won't find many publications willing to go there. Perhaps they are fearful of losing Ford advertising dollars.

Here's a portion of my tweetstream in reverse order to make it easier to read, telling the story 140 characters at a time (some typos have been cleaned up):

  • Miss. jury awards $131 million in damages to family of Brian Cole, killed in Ford Explorer rollover accident. No news media there.
  • I know about Ford verdict because I wrote book about the Ford Explorer/Firestone debacle. http://tinyurl.com/3387rbr
  • Amazing in this age of instant media that a jury returns w $131M verdict against a major corporation and no reporter/blogger there.
  • The case involved Brian Cole, a top prospect for the NY Mets, killed in 2001 when his Ford Explorer rolled over: http://tinyurl.com/35m3th7
  • The New York Mets believed that Cole would be a major league star: http://tinyurl.com/y9878vy
  • Researching "Tragic Indifference" I learned 1 in 2,700 Ford Explorers built bet 1990 - 2001 rolled over, *killed* someone in the car.
  • And Ford Bronco II, precursor to Explorer, was way worse: 1 in 500 Broncos ever produced rolled over, killed someone in the car.
  • C'mon reporters. Am I only one who thinks $131 MILLION verdict against FORD in a product liability suit is news??
  • Dear reporters: You won't get the story by sitting on your asses surfing Google News or PR Newswire. You have to make some phone calls.
  • Checked NYTimes.com. Nothing on Ford Explorer rollover verdict. Last story: "Ford Replacing Classic Police Cruiser With an S.U.V." Gawd.
  • Dear Editors: Story involves huge verdict v major corporation, NY Mets star in the wings, grieving family, all-star attorney.
  • Former NY Mets GM Jim Duquette said, Cole "would've come on the scene right with Jose Reyes in 2003." http://tinyurl.com/y9878vy
  • Mookie Wilson testified in the previous trial that ended in mistrial earlier this year. The kid was heading home to Miss. to see his family.
  • Huzzah for Local newspaper w 1st story: RT @felixsalmon: The first tiny story: http://tinyurl.com/37xc5wr
  • Why was Ford Explorer so dangerous? 1st, built on Ford Ranger pickup assembly lines so too narrow. Also, too high. Roof metal v weak.
  • In fact, if you took a Ford Explorer from 1990 - 2001, flipped it upside down, lowered on roof, it would cave in from own weight.
  • Ford forbid its own test drivers from test driving Explorers in eqarly 1990s because they rolled over, too dangerous.
  • Ford management knew of the risks. They experienced it w Ford Bronco, which Consumer Reports said was unstable and dangerous to drive.
  • Ford Bronco II was a pickup truck with a roof pasted on top. 1 in 500 rolled over and killed at least 1 person in the car.
  • Imagine if 1 in 500 computers blew up if you plugged it in or even if 1 in 500 tennis racquets disintegrated after a month = RECALL.
  • One lawyer, Tab Turner, won $25 million verdict v Ford in 1990s Bronco II rollover case. Settled w Ford more than $1 BILLION over 20 years.
  • I read countless accident reports involving Explorer rollovers. They all followed same basic script.
  • Either driver swerves to avoid other car or obstruction or tire detreads at highway speed. With most cars, pull over, put on spare.
  • With a Ford Explorer, you end up swerving, correct thru steering, say, right. Car still out of control. Turn wheel again and you roll over.
  • One woman, Jana Fuqua, was cut off on highway. She avoided car, swerved, tried to gain control, and was found partially ejected thru sunroof.
  • Fuqua was still fastened in her seatbelt when she was found, rendered a vegetable.
  • Mark Arndt, professional test driver, was testing a Ford Explorer on a test track. The car was outfitted with outriggers and reinforced cage.
  • Arndt got the Explorer to 70 MPH, the tire tread peeled off as planned, and he lost control. The car shot off road within fraction of a sec.
  • Arndt, a pro test driver, never had an outrigger break on a test. Until now. The Explorer rolled over so hard the outrigger jammed in ground.
  • It shattered, and the Explorer rolled over. Arndt had read a lot of Explorer accident reports. He had presence of mind to stick hands up.
  • His head brushed against the roof as the cabin around him caved in. He pushed up as hard as he culd, trying to keep butt pinned to seat.
  • Arndt knew if his head rested against roof as car caved in, he could break his neck. This is what happened to a woman named Donna Bailey.
  • Donna Bailey was a passenger in a Ford Explorer, on her way mountain climbing in spring 2000. Rear tire detreaded, driver lost control...
  • Explorer rolled over. The seatbelt had a give of 8". This is critical, because Donna was 5'8" tall. Car landed on roof, which caved in.
  • Bailey's head was pinned against roof, and the impact shattered her C2. The car rolled and rolled. Finally propped up against a fence.
  • The driver, Tara Cox, managed to squeeze out of the car. So did a passenger, who escaped by sliding out window, climbing on upside down car.
  • They peered in the front windshield, to see Bailey, upside down, turning blue, eyes beseeching them to help her.
  • "She's gonna die," Tara screamed. She and passenger tried to peel back windshield. Couldn't do it. Tara slithered in the way she got out.
  • She got to Bailey and unhooked her from seatbelt. But Bailey's knees trapped in crumpled dashboard. Tara couldn't budge her.
  • Tara smelled gas. The gas tank disengaged. Afraid car would blow up. But Tara worked Bailey's knees free. They pulled Bailey out.
  • Tara was trained paramedic. She tried to clear Bailey's airway. For a moment Bailey stopped breathing, her eyes dull. Tara told me it was ...
  • like when animals die. You see the color drain from their pupils. Miraculously Bailey came back to life. Ambulance came, a volunteer fireman ...
  • They put her on oxygen tank. Then Bailey was flown to a hospital. Tara, covered in her friend's blood, follows behind.
  • When Tara calls her husband, he was more concerned about the car—he had a couple years of payments to make—then he was about his wife.
  • Then Tara has to call Bailey's boyfriend. He screamed at her, told her she was at fault. And this is the thing that really pisses me off.
  • Everybody blamed Tara for the accident. Her husband, her friends, Bailey's family. They assumed it had to be driver error. Why?
  • Because when you get a blowout, what do you do? Well, you pull over to side of the road, take out the jack, and put on a spare.
  • So Ford, of course, alleges driver error. With Ford, it's always the driver's fault. Or the tire's fault. But then they almost always settle.
  • And the lawyer who has done the most settlements w Ford is Tab Turner. These settlements involve hundreds of plaintiffs, worth $1 billion.
  • With Bailey, Tab Turner got the family $25 million [from Ford and Firestone combined]. Ford never wants to go to trial with him. In the end, Ford always settles.
  • No settlement this time. The case involved a New York Mets prospect, Brian Cole, killed on his way home from spring training.
  • The Mets predicted the kid would be a star, and join Jose Reyes on the team in 2003. He never got home.
  • Coles swerved to avoid a driver heading toward him in his lane, and the Explorer rolled over. Coles ejected from car, tho he wore seatbelt.
  • So here we have a major corporation, a $131 million verdict against it, a star litigator, a future NY Mets star and... NO MEDIA COVERAGE.
  • On home page of the NY Times, the only mention of Ford is an advertisement for the Ford Fusion. Way to go with the breaking news, folks!
  • On Google News, nothing. Way to be relevant, Google computerized aggregator.
  • Finally, an AP story on it. Thanks, @Tarbel: http://bit.ly/bqbvxC
  • After the jury awards family $131 million in damages, Ford settles case. Wanna know why?
  • First of all, Ford probably scared to death what the punitive damages would be. But also, the family would never get anywhere near $131M.
  • Ford would appeal, of course. And even if during years of appeals + verdict stood, tort reform in Miss. means it'd be cut down by huge amt.
  • We live in a world of instant communication, with news orgs battling to be first even by seconds against a competitor. When that happens...
  • Editors and reporters high five and cheer because Bloomberg beat Reuters by 2 seconds, or AP was first and Dow Jones 3rd. Biz press = speed.
  • Because a verdict of this magnitude could potentially affect Ford's stock price. Yet where the hell is the business press on this? #fail.
  • I realize Mississippi ain't exactly on the beaten path, but this is major court case. Yet it takes more than an hour for first nat news story?
  • Sorry, make that more than 2 hours ago...
  • In the AP story, Ford blamed the driver. Yet when my book came out Ford made not a peep. It had voluminous endnotes, documents, depositions.
  • But I knew Ford wouldn't sue, because I had 100s of Ford internal documents, and the documents don't lie.

——

Adam L. Penenberg is author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. A journalism professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Penenberg is a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg

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