BY ELAINE DE VALLE AND JAY WEAVER
A Miami-Dade County jury Thursday ordered Ford Motor Company to pay a $15.4 million award to a young girl who suffered paralysis and severe brain damage in a rollover van accident during her fam- ily’s trip to Disney World two years ago.
Mary “Phoebe’’ Jimenez, 12, and her parents won the judgment after the jury found Ford liable for improperly installing the air valve on the right-rear Goodyear tire of the family’s rented Econoline
The tire exploded as the family was leaving Jacksonville for Orlando on May 9, 1999, causing the new van to roll over on Interstate 95, the jury concluded.
“This is an important verdict because it tells Ford that it needs to take better care of safety in its cars,’’ said the family’s attorney, Ervin A. Gonzalez, who handled the case with Gonzalo Dorta.
“At least they will be more careful,’’ said the girl’s father, Ramon Philip Jimenez. “I expect there will be more quality control. There are other families out there who put their trust in Ford so they should check things more carefully.’’
He also said the award will allow the family to get Phoebe expensive aggressive physical therapy treatments to help her regain some of her motor skills. “She has to relearn everything: how to walk, how to use her hands, how to stand, how to run.’’
Phoebe, who had just turned 10 at the time of the accident, has already shown signs of improvement in the last two years, her father said. “We just need to keep pushing her.
“She knows how to express herself in her face. She has regained her sense of touch,’’ Jimenez said.
“She can feel. She knows what’s happening around her. But it’s like she’s trapped inside her body and she can’t move.’’
The case is fairly uncommon because almost all of the lawsuits involving rollovers were brought by victims of Ford Explorers-Firestone accidents. There have been hundreds of those cases filed cross the country, many which have been settled out of court.
One of the only van rollover suits ever tried was a Kentucky case that ended in a $20.1-million verdict against Ford in 1999. Called the “pony club’’ case, it involved the rollover wreck of a van carrying Australian teenagers to an international equestrian competition. Three people died and several others were injured. Ford, which blamed the accident on unsafe driving, has appealed that decision.
The Jimenezes formerly lived in the Philippines, but relocated to Miami so their daughter could re- ceive treatment at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The jury award, which took into account that Phoebe was not wearing seatbelt, is mostly for the girl’s medical costs and pain and suffering.
Her aunt also died in the accident, but she was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Ford.
The auto giant is expected to appeal the verdict. Ford’s attorney, Benjamin Reid, could not be reached for comment.
Jimenez recalls his daughter’s life before the accident: “Yes. She was very active,’’ he said. “She used to love running around in the yard with her sister and brother. And going to the park.’’
Today, Jimenez and his wife, Maria Beth, are ecstatic with much smaller steps: when she moves her foot faintly when he father asks her to kick or when she stands alone – unsupported – for five minutes straight.
Though she is fed by a tube in her stomach five times a day – at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9
p.m. – her father says Phoebe delights in having juice on cotton swabs swiped inside her mouth.
The family has plans to use some of the lawsuit winnings to pay for a speech pathologist to help their daughter talk again. Jimenez has hopes his daughter can one day make a full recovery.
When that day comes, Jimenez said, the family has a trip to make: to Disney World.
“One of these days, she is going to go.’’