Pflugerville family, Ford settle liability lawsuit

By Kelly Daniel
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, November 1, 2002

A wrenching, three-week trial stemming from a 1999 crash that left a Pflugerville girl paralyzed appeared headed toward mistrial Thursday, but then the parties abruptly settled, ending what a judge called "the most tragic thing I've ever seen."

The case was unusual from the beginning. It featured a product liability lawsuit, a rarity in Travis County, against a major corporation, Ford Motor Corp. Lawyers made their arguments in front of a scaled-down model of a wrecked van inside the courtroom, and the actual vehicles crushed in the wreck were outside so jurors could inspect them.

The case centered on a Nov. 17, 1999, wreck near Pflugerville, in which a Ford Windstar van driven by Cindy Poirier was hit by a Ford F-150 truck driven by James Wheland. Poirier had four children, all younger than 7, properly buckled up in the van; she and three children escaped with minor injuries. But Caitlin Poirier, now 8, was severely disabled.

Caitlin, who was 5 at the time of the crash, suffered head and spinal injuries so damaging that she is classified as the most severe quadriplegic and depends on a ventilator to breathe.

Cindy Poirier and Virgil Poirier Jr., Caitlin's parents, sued Ford, asking for $11 million for past and future medical expenses and at least $30 million in damages. They claimed a design defect in the 1996 Windstar contributed to Caitlin's injuries. Wheland, who ran a stop sign, was named as a co-defendant.

The jury deliberated Tuesday afternoon, all day Wednesday and until 2 p.m. Thursday but deadlocked 7-5 and 6-6 on the issues.

As presiding Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman was preparing to declare the mistrial, lawyers for Ford, Wheland and the Poiriers announced the settlement.

Details of the agreement were confidential, but the settlement did not include any admission of liability on the defendants' part.

"Settlements are kind of one of those things, they don't feel good to anybody until you have time to reflect on them," said Brent Carpenter, a Sugar Land lawyer who represented Virgil Poirier.

Carpenter was the only lawyer involved in the case who could be reached for comment late Thursday.

The trial started Oct. 14 and was tried at the University of Texas Law School's Eidman Courtroom because that was the only venue that could hold the model of the Ford Windstar, Herman said.

"This is the most tragic thing I've ever seen," Herman said. "I've got kids the same age. The lawyers all have kids the same age. (It was ) absolutely no fault of the mother driving. . . . Everything you could do to take care of your kids, she did."

Caitlin was riding in the driver's side rear passenger seat. That seat belt in the Windstar is bolted to the floor, whereas other seat belts are anchored to a seat or door, Herman said.

The F-150 hit the driver's side at about a 53 degree angle in a spot where the Windstar does not have safety beams to guard against that sort of impact.

The truck broke through the Windstar's shell, snapping Caitlin's seat belt.

The Windstar is not required to have an intrusion beam on the rear driver's side because the law requires such beams only by all doors, Herman said. Intrusion beams are metal supports that add protection in the case of an accident by reinforcing the side of a vehicle.

The Poiriers argued that Ford was liable because the extent of Caitlin's injuries could have been prevented if such a beam had been in place and if the seat belt were anchored to the seat.

Ford disputed the claims, arguing the vehicle is safe and the child was crippled by the unusual and substantial impact of the crash.

Herman praised all the lawyers and the jurors as being exceptional, well-prepared, focused and responsible. But in the end, no one could decide absolutely if the design of the van deserved blame.

"Going through another three-week trial is devastating," Herman said of the Poiriers' decision to settle. "The other side, they wanted her to have the best outcome as possible. They just don't think it's their fault. But they obviously were willing to do something to see she was taken care of."

Caitlin requires round-the-clock care.

The family has a nurse to help for 16 hours a day, with Cindy Poirier caring for her daughter the remaining eight hours, Carpenter said.

"She'll never walk," Carpenter said, and she has zero use of her arms or legs.
There is a chance Caitlin could be taken off the ventilator for short periods of time with a special implant to help her lungs inflate, but that procedure has not been done, and the family does not know how long it might allow her to breathe on her own.

But Caitlin didn't suffer any brain damage and now attends school in Pflugerville. She is a quick-witted, fun child who dreams of becoming a teacher and has a loving family to care for her, the judge said.

"Great family, great kid," Herman said. "Wrong place, wrong time."

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