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Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Ford Shattering Sunroof Case

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April 4, 2021

A Washington couple’s claims against Ford Motor Co. have been revived after being thrown out of federal court last February on a motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs were successful on appeal and a three-judge panel reversed the prior ruling this month on the motion for summary judgment finding that a factual dispute exists as to whether Ford’s alleged defect of its panoramic sunroof design is material to consumers.

On appeal, the plaintiffs put forth evidence and argued that both Ford and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had been put on notice of the alleged defect. Both sides brought forth expert witnesses to attest to the effects of the alleged spontaneously shattering sunroofs which the appeals court found created an issue of fact and led to the case being sent back to the circuit court.

The couple, Jacob and Jessica Beaty, are claiming that their 2013 Ford Escape equipped with the “Power Panoramic Vista Roof” was defective and dangerous after the sunroof spontaneously shattered one day while Jessica was driving with their daughter. The couple brought suit against Ford in March of 2017 claiming that the panoramic sunroof design was defective. The suit alleges that the sunroofs were fastened onto the frame of the vehicle in a way that caused normal vehicle movement to be absorbed by the glass and that even normal wear could lead to the sunroofs spontaneously shattering.

The suit brought against Ford was initially dismissed in February 2020, by Judge Ronald B. Leighton of the United States District Court after a finding that the plaintiffs failed to show that an alleged defect in the Ford Escape causing sunroofs to shatter was a substantial and material threat to all buyers.

Following the close of discovery in September 2020, Ford filed its motion for summary judgment arguing that the Beatys exaggerated the rate at which Ford’s sunroofs would spontaneously shatter and pose a threat to consumers. Ford argued that the consumer protection laws relied upon by the plaintiffs were not relevant as they related to risks of serious injury or death and Ford’s design is fully compliant with the National Highway and Traffic Safety standards which mitigates those risks. Ford’s sunroof is designed to shatter in round nuggets without sharp edges to prevent serious injury. Further, Ford’s lawyers argued that the alleged defect did not make the vehicles abnormally unsafe and that the spontaneous shattering occurred in only 0.5% of vehicles.

In the latest opinion, the appeals court found that a reasonable juror could find even the claimed 0.5% chance of your vehicle having a shattering sunroof to be material to drivers, stating that the lower court was wrong to rely on the National Highway and Traffic Safety standards because they are inconsistent with Washington state law.

Judges Ronald Gould and Michelle T. Friedland and U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen served on the panel.

The Beatys are represented by Gregory F. Coleman, Mark E. Silvey, Adam A. Edwards and Lisa A. White of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman PLLC, Beth E. Terrell, Amanda M. Steiner and Benjamin M. Drachler of Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC and Paul J. Hanly Jr., Mitchell M. Breit and Eric S. Johnson of Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC.

Ford is represented by Caryn Geraghty Jorgensen, John T. Fetters and Brett MacIntyre of Stokes Lawrence PS, Cari K. Dawson and Kyle G.A. Wallace of Alston & Bird LLP, Bradley W. Petersen of Slattery Petersen PLLC and Sherry A. Rozell of McAfee & Taft PC.

The case is Beaty et al. v. Ford Motor Co., case number 20-35141, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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