Jury gets case in $19M lawsuit filed by ex-officer against Ford

By Peter H. Milliken



A jury will now decide the outcome of a $19 million lawsuit by a former Austintown police officer who said he was badly burned in a collision because the Ford Motor Co. made a defective cruiser.

As soon as lawyers concluded their closing arguments Monday evening, visiting Judge Thomas P. Curran of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court read to the jurors a 71-page set of instructions governing their deliberations.

The former officer, Ross J. Linert, and his wife, Brenda, alleged that the 2005 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor cruiser, which Linert drove when he was burned in the crash, had a fuel tank that was improperly located behind its rear axle, without adequate shields or guards and without a fire- suppression system.

However, Ford’s lawyers argued there was nothing wrong with the vehicle and that no vehicle is leak-proof, accident-proof or fireproof in a case, such as this, where a drunken driver rear-ended Linert at 115 mph while Linert was going 35 mph.

“This is about the Ford Motor Co. and the burn injuries that were caused by their negligence,” said Bradley M. Lakin, a lawyer for the Linerts.

Lakin told the jury the metal crimp in the fuel tank’s sending unit, from which gasoline is sent to the engine, was too thin, causing the sending unit to dislodge in the crash and leak the fuel that caused the fire that burned Linert.

“That’s the difference between a fire in this case and Ross Linert going home with broken ribs,” Lakin said of the metal crimp, adding that it didn’t meet Ford’s engineering standards.

“We are here because Adrien Foutz, for reasons that are unknown, drove 115 mph down Meridian Road northbound at about 1 o’clock in the morning,” Ford’s lawyer, James Feeney, told the jury. “Her conduct is the only conduct that could have changed to have any different outcome here,” Feeney said of Foutz.

The Linerts reached a pretrial settlement with Foutz with undisclosed terms.

Foutz, 25, of Girard, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.279 — more than three times the legal limit — when she rear-ended Linert on Meridian Road under Interstate 680 on Nov. 11, 2007. She pleaded no contest to aggravated vehicular assault and served 19 months in prison.

Feeney said the gasoline tank met engineering standards and that there is no numerical specification for crimp overlap.

There is no evidence a different gas-tank location would have made any difference in the outcome of the crash that injured Linert, Feeney said.

“This tank location is safe,” Feeney said, noting that Linert’s gas tank was 40 inches from the rear of the cruiser.

“The vehicle is the best, safest police vehicle that is on the road in 2005,” he said.

During his closing argument, Lakin asked the jury to award a combined total of $19 million to the Linerts, including awards for lost wages, medical bills, pain and suffering, loss of consortium, permanent deformity, mental anguish and loss of grip strength and manual dexterity.

During the closing arguments, Austintown Police Chief Robert Gavalier sat on a spectator bench on the plaintiff’s side of the courtroom with a captain, a sergeant and a patrolman from the police department.