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Owen, continued from page 5 more difficult for the plaintiff to pick the court in which the suit will be filed. And ensuring that once a jury rules in favor of a plaintiff, strict arithmetical formulas determine a reasonable award. A reasonable award to provide for the care of Willie Searcy, if he lived in his parents’ house with constant medical assistance, would be $22 million, Ayres told the jury. “If he lived in an assisted environment, where he was independent or had somebody else live with him, or in a hospital, that number would probably be $26 million. That’s what it’s going to cost and I make no apology for telling you that,” Ayres said in his opening statement. “That’s justice in this case.” It would require four months of testimony. And reams of documental evidence, including bizarre videos presented by the plaintiffs of Ford crash tests in which the heads were ripped off the dummies when their torsos slammed into seat belts that were stressed in simulated high-speed collisions. At the end of the four-month trial, the jury deliberated for just over four hours. It awarded the Miles family $30 million most to Willie’s mother for care of her son. On the following day, it took the jury 90 minutes to decide on an additional $10 million in punitive damages. On March 9, 1995, 23 months after he was airlifted off Interstate 35, the state’s civil justice system had delivered the goods for Willie Searcy. But Susan Miles knew she couldn’t go out and buy a backup ventilator and hire a full-time nursing-care-team for her son: Ford described the verdict as an aberration and said it would win on appeal. The appealor appealswould be far more complicated than the trial. Rusk County is an anomalyone of a few Texas counties with divided appellate jurisdiction. Parties to a lawsuit in the district court in Henderson could appeal to the state court of appeals in Tyler. Or to the state court of appeals in Texarkana. The split jurisdiction would further delay a final decision on the case. Willie’s lawyers had little to appeal. They had prevailedor almost completely prevailedwith a $40 million jury decision. They lost on a few points. The Ford dealership in Dallas had been dismissed as a defendant. And Willie’s stepfather’s “loss of consortium” claim had been dismissed. They immediately filed their appeal in Texarkana to challenge the loss of consortium and other technical issues in the decision.They also wanted any appeal of the case heard in the Texarkana court, which was more favorable to plaintiffs. Ford’s lawyers later filed their appeal in Tyleran appeals court more sympathetic to defendants. The legal fight over which appeals court would hear the case cost Willie Searcy another year. The Texas Supreme Court finally ruled that the first party to the courthouse decided the jurisdictionand Willie Searcy’s lawyers had filed first. They now pleaded with the Texarkana Court of Appeals to expedite the case they filed there in January 1996. And the court did. It handed down a complex ruling in 43 days, determining that the $30 million in actual damages would stand. It also ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove Ford grossly negligent or malicious in its intent. The Texarkana court overturned the punitive damages. That part of the case would have to be retried. “That put a bull’s eye on the case,” Ayres said, making it far more likely it would be heard by the Texas Supreme Court. Ford immediately issued a statement to the press from its Dearborn, Michigan, corporate headquarters. The company would ask the Texas Supreme Court to review the case. The “Ford News” press release also included a call for tort reform to “assure fair and impartial forums where facts can overcome bias and sympathy.” Willie Searcy’s case moved from Texarkana to Austin. Jack Ayres asked the Supreme Court to expedite the appeal. In the three years since the accident, he had grown more familiar with the almost impossible daily life of Willie Searcy and his parents. Nursing care was patched together. There was no backup ventilator or portable gener ator to eliminate the risk of power failures. And there was a constant fear of death from autonomic dysreflexiaa spike in blood pressure if a leg or arm is improperly positioned and not moved by the nurse. “This was on all our minds all the time,” Ayres said. On paper Willie Searcy was a millionaire, in possession of a $30 million judgment provided to him by a Texas jury in state district court.Yet his life was at risk because his family didn’t have the money to pay for a complete health care program. This time Ford’s attorneys joined Ayres in filing a motion requesting the Supreme Court to expedite the case. Two years later, Associate Justice Priscilla Owen issued the court’s opinion. Again, Willie Searcy’s fate had been sealed by a small piece of paper. Not the opinion Owen wrote on behalf of the majority, but a three-by-five note card that she had picked up more than two years earlier. At the Texas Supreme Court, cases are randomly assigned to judges by a court clerk who places note cards facedown on a desk. It’s a blind draw. One of the cards Owen picked up in 1996 had Miles v. Ford written on it. “That kid’s fate was decided when Justice Owen picked that card,” said a lawyer who was working at the Supreme Court at the time. Priscilla Owen was a Karl Rove candidate for the Texas Supreme Court. An oil and gas litigator from a commercial law firm, she was groomed to run against Democratic Justice Lloyd Doggett. But Doggett filed for the congressional seat vacated by Jake Pickle. In a race for an open seat, Owen defeated Austin appeals court Judge Jimmy Carroll in the 1994 race that made George W. Bush governor. Owen was soon competing with Justice Nathan Hecht to stake out the most conservative position on the ninejudge bench. \(Intellectually, she followed the lead of Hecht, whom she also somebuilding a dominant right-wing block until a more moderate centrist faction fell in behind Deborah Hankinson, a 1997 Bush appointee described by The 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/25/03