A 26-year-old Clarksburg man who lost an arm and a leg after his Ford pickup truck "burst into flames" in a collision on Georgia Avenue last year was awarded $26 million in damages yesterday by a Baltimore jury.
The award, said to be one of the largest in Maryland history, came after a four-week trial in which attorneys for John Wasilik argued that his 1987 Ford F-150 pickup caught fire and trapped him because of a fuel tank defect and other problems, according to Deborah Potter, of Annapolis, one of Wasilik's attorneys.
After deliberating less than four hours, the jury awarded Wasilik $11 million to cover his past and continuing medical expenses and lost wages and $15 million for "pain and suffering." The latter part of the judgment is likely to be cut to $500,000 under a Maryland law that places a ceiling on such damages. Potter, however, said she plans to argue that the limit is unconstitutional.
Wasilik said he was "surprised" by the size of the judgment. "I just feel grateful to the jurors," said the former landscaper, who was disfigured by the severe burns he suffered in the crash.
Wasilik's truck collided with a Toyota Supra driven by Mark Alvin Rehert, of Silver Spring, whose car allegedly crossed the center line on the road in northern Montgomery County, about a half-mile from Howard County, Potter said. Rehert was a defendant along with Ford Motor Co.
Ford officials said they are examining a possible appeal. They described the accident as "unique and horrendous" and said the verdict was an emotional reaction to Wasilik's devastating injuries.
"Clearly the jury was swayed by overwhelming sympathy for Wasilik," said Ford spokesman John Harmon. "But we want it to be clear that the plaintiff's arguments that his injuries were caused by a product defect are groundless."
An estimated 450,000 F-150 trucks were built for the 1987 model year, according to Harmon, who added that reports of fuel-system-related fires in those trucks are rare.
A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets auto safety standards and monitors vehicle defects, said there have been no federal investigations of those trucks relating to fuel-system fires.
Potter however, argued that the truck's fuel tank was not equipped with an "anti-siphoning device" that would have prevented the fuel from leaking out of gas lines when the truck was hit. The lawyer also argued that defective rivets and welds caused the walls of the passenger compartment to collapse and allowed the load of drywall that Wasilik was carrying to slide forward and trap him in the cab. A passenger in Wasilik's truck suffered minor injuries.
Ford officials said yesterday that Rehert's wedge-nosed Toyota Supra sports coupe went under Wasilik's truck, damaging some fuel-system components.
"There was no burst' of flame," Harmon said. "A small fire started, and it eventually became a bigger fire. Wasilik was trapped inside the truck cab by cinder blocks and other building materials that protruded into the cab."
The two sides also disagree on the speed at which the accident occurred. Ford officials said the "closing speed" ranged from 90 to 100 miles an hour; Potter put it at 70 to 80 miles an hour. Closing speed is the combined speed at which two opposing moving bodies meet.
The Ford truck was not equipped with a sidesaddle gasoline tank, a design in which fuel tanks are mounted on either side of the truck's cargo bed. Such tanks were implicated in the fires resulting from crashes of several General Motors Corp. pickups manufactured in the late 1970s and '80s.
But government investigations of those GM trucks yielded no finding of a defect. No safety recall was ordered.
Although the crash occurred in Montgomery County, Wasilik's attorneys chose to present the case in Baltimore. According to other lawyers, Baltimore juries are known to give larger monetary awards in accident and product liability cases.