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Priscilla Owen the last-minute intervention after the judge denied Ford’s motion to delay the trial didn’t seem right. Ford’s defense attorneys, local counsel Dick Grainger, and Thomas Fennell and Margaret Keliher of Jones Day Reavis & Pogue’s Dallas office, said they were not behind the intervention. But prison visitors’ logs in Texas are part of the public record. The plaintiffs’ lawyers drove to the prison where Knight was incarcerated and found that Margaret Keliher had visited him. When they told him that his intervention would delay his son’s trial, Knight withdrew from the case. Keliher, who is now a Dallas County Judge, said Ford’s defense team had to see to it that Knight intervened so he wouldn’t come back and sue the company and perhaps its lawyers later. Asked if she went to a prison to meet with Knight, she said she didn’t recall. “That’s been a long time.You’re taxing my memory” Ford Motor Co. is not exactly an easy mark for lawsuits. In the early ’90s, the company was winning 80 percent of the cases that made it to a jury. In 1994, as Willie Searcy’s lawyers were starting the discovery phase of the trial, the company was changing its litigation strategy. Ford was going to play hardball. “The essence of Ford’s strategy,” according to The National Law Journal, “is that it’s now ready and willing to try any case, no matter how small, no matter how great the risk of a mammoth jury verdict.” The company would make a take-it-or-leave-it pretrial settlement offer. Ford assistant general counsel James A. Brown was up front about the new strategy. There would be one offer, he told the Law Journal reporter. “I don’t give a shit if they take it or not…If the plaintiff doesn’t settle, it doesn’t matter to us. We tell them, `We’re coming after you.'” Ford came after Willie Searcy’s lawyers. “They told us to make an offer they would find acceptable, or they would string this along until Willie died,” Randall Sandifer said. Sandifer filed an affidavit describing Ford’s promise to delay a final resolution of the case as long as they could. The trial that finally began on January 20, 1995, in Henderson was not exactly edifying. To prove a faulty Ford design didn’t cause Willie Searcy’s injuries, Dick Grainger had to impeach the character of the parents of a paraplegic who spent most of his time lying in bed. The gist of his argument was that Willie Searcy’s spinal cord was injured because he was a small kid”in the fifth percentile.” And he had a large head. It was the simple mechanics of a large head and a small neck that caused his injury. To prove the point, Grainger had to dispute the Miles’ story of their son being a good athlete. He couldn’t even make the high school football team, Grainger argued. How could the parents claim he was a good running back? \(He was a starting running back for a regional championship YMCA league football ents’ claim that Willie was a bright kid, introducing as evidence intelligence test results administered by an expert witness hired by the defense team. It was not an argument aimed at the hearts of a small-town Texas jury. Ayres’ opening statement was a quiet, personal discussion with the jurors. He claimed Ford knew long before 1988 that their tension eliminator would at times fail. The Wall Street Journal had in 1987 reported the danger of slack caused by tension eliminators. In the same year, Ford engineers expressed concern that a third of the people who used tension eliminators had too much slack in their belts. In 1983, a Ford engineer developed a mathematical model that predicted passenger injury or deaths in collisions. One variable in the model was the amount of slack in seat belts. Badly injured plaintiffs like Willie Searcy are easier to represent than large corporations. Jurors readily identify with them. They can put themselves in the plaintiff’s shoesor car or mechanical bed. That, in a sense, is what tort reform is all about. Rewriting the rules of civil jurisprudence so that although jurors identify with plaintiffs, it is far more dif ficult to rule in their favor. Making it continued on page 16 “That kid’s fate was decided when Justice Owen picked that card,” said a lawyer who was working at the Texas Supreme Court at the time. 4/25/03 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5