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JONES v FORD MOTOR COMPANY

Present:  All the Justices

MARGARET JONES

v. Record No. 010136  OPINION BY JUSTICE LEROY R. HASSELL, SR.

March 1, 2002

FORD MOTOR COMPANY

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY M. Langhorne Keith, Judge   In this appeal of a judgment entered in favor of an automobile manufacturer, the primary issue we consider is whether the manufacturer’s purported judicial admission barred the plaintiff from presenting evidence that the manufacturer had notice of an alleged defective condition in an automobile.

I.

The plaintiff, Margaret Jones, filed her motion for judgment against Ford Motor Company (Ford) and Cherner Lincoln Mercury-Annandale, Inc. (Cherner Lincoln Mercury).  She alleged that she and her husband purchased a 1991 Lincoln Town Car, manufactured by Ford, from Cherner Lincoln Mercury’s predecessor in interest.

The plaintiff pled that she was injured when a defect in the cruise control system in her Lincoln Town Car made the car accelerate suddenly without warning, causing the car to travel out of control across a street and crash into a concrete stanchion.  The plaintiff alleged, among other things, that Ford negligently designed the car’s cruise control system, negligently failed to warn her that the Lincoln Town Car could accelerate suddenly, and breached certain warranties.

The plaintiff alleged that Cherner Lincoln Mercury breached its warranty of merchantability to her for the following reasons:  the car was defectively designed because of defects in its throttle and cruise control systems, and the car was not adequately and properly tested for the purpose of determining whether a sudden unintended acceleration event was possible.  Ford and Cherner Lincoln Mercury filed separate grounds of defense and denied any liability to the plaintiff.

The litigants filed numerous pretrial motions.  Ford filed a motion in limine to exclude as evidence a study that Ford had commissioned, referred to as the Updegrove Study.  Ford also filed motions in limine to exclude evidence of other accidents, incidents, complaints, and lawsuits.  The plaintiff requested that the court permit her to use the depositions of a Virginia State Trooper and three United States Secret Service employees who had experienced unintended sudden acceleration events similar to the incident that she had experienced.  These deponents were operating cars manufactured by Ford when the unintended sudden acceleration events occurred.

On the morning of trial, the plaintiff dismissed her cause of action against Cherner Lincoln Mercury.  The circuit court permitted Ford to make a purported judicial admission that it had “[n]otice that there were sudden acceleration incidents in cars equipped with stand-alone cruise-control systems.”  Once Ford made this purported judicial admission, the circuit court ruled that the plaintiff could not use the depositions of the United States Secret Service employees, the State Trooper, or any information contained in the Updegrove Study.  At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ford.  The plaintiff appeals.

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