A Falls Church woman whose accident outside the Seven Corners shopping center triggered a federal investigation of Ford Motor Co.'s automatic transmissions had her $16,500 verdict against the auto maker upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court today.
A consumer group, the Center for Auto Safety, founded by Ralph Nader, hailed the opinion, claiming that the transmissions, which allegedly slip from "park" to "reverse," have caused more than 160 fatalities.
As a result of the Seven Corners accident and others reported later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation into all Ford vehicles to determine the extent of the slippage problem. Ford eventually reached a settlement with the Department of Transportation in which it agreed to mail out millions of warning stickers to motorists, although it has consistently maintained that all accidents were the fault of the motorists.
The consumer group reported that more than 1,000 suits seeking a total of $1.7 billion have been filed against the company concerning the transmissions.
The transmissions became an issue after an incident on Oct. 22, 1976, in which Constance K. Bartholomew of Falls Church was loading groceries into her 1973 Lincoln Continental in a parking lot at Seven Corners. Bartholomew contended that after she had placed several bags in the back seat, the car slipped into reverse, rolled backward and ran over her left leg before hitting parked cars.
Three years later, a Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled against Ford and awarded her the $16,500 in damages. She has filed another lawsuit against Ford, expected to go to trial early next year, asking for $10 million in damages for injuries allegedly sustained by her infant son, who was in the car at the time and suffered a crippling bone disease after the accident.
"This really reaffirms your faith in human justice," an exuberant Bartholomew said today, celebrating the Supreme Court's opinion with a bottle of champagne. "It's been seven years of fighting."
Richard H. Lewis, a lawyer representing Ford in the case, criticized Bartholomew today as a "consumer activist" who didn't know how to operate her car. "Anybody should know how to put a car in gear and she didn't put it into gear," he said.