A Mississippi court ordered Ford Motor Company to pay $131 million Thursday to the family of a 22-year-old man who died while driving an Explorer, NBC affiliate WDAM reported.
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Following the verdict in the case of Brian Cole — a former New York Mets prospect — Ford agreed to settle before punitive damages were considered in the wrongful death lawsuit. The amount of the settlement was confidential, defense attorney Tom Tullos of Bay Springs said.
Cole was killed in 2001 when he was thrown from his Ford Explorer on a state highway near the Florida-Georgia line. His cousin Ryan Cole, who was also in the vehicle, was injured.
They were driving from the Mets’ spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla., to visit family in Mississippi.
Cole attorneys allege the ballplayer was killed as a result of a faulty seat-belt design and that the SUV was prone to roll over during a tire blowout.
Jasper County Circuit Court awarded Cole’s estate $131 million in actual damages Thursday — a much-prolonged victory after Cole’s first two trials ended in mistrials.
On Thursday Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans said the company felt sympathy for the family’s loss but "it was unfair of them to blame Ford."
"Brian Cole had been driving over 80 mph when he drifted off road for unknown reasons, suddenly turned his steering wheel 295 degrees, lost control, and caused the vehicle to roll over more than three times," Evans said.
"He was not wearing his safety belt and died after being ejected from the vehicle. His passenger, who was properly belted, walked away from the accident."
She said Ford would have won the case if the judge had not excluded certain pieces of evidence.
The family’s attorney, Tab Turner, told Reuters that the damages in Cole’s case were higher than other rollover cases because of the ballplayer’s profession.
A lengthy tribute to Cole was run on the Mets’ MLB.com page late Thursday, describing him as "a special talent, an uncommonly good person" who was "projected him to reach the big leagues in 2002" and bet at "the core of the club’s next generation."
Ford, which has denied allegations the Explorer was prone to rollovers, severed a nearly century-old partnership with tire company Firestone in 2001 after blaming them for blowouts and rollover accidents that led to a number of deaths and injuries.