A Waynesboro family has lived a nightmare most parents can't even conceive. Fire raced through the family van, killing their 3-year-old daughter and severely burning her twin brother.
Now, the Funkhouser family feels victimized once again, this time by the court system. A lawsuit blames the Ford Motor Company for the May 2006 fire that started inside a Windstar minivan without the engine running or a key in the ignition.
The case is still alive, but after a January ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court, the family's attorney says it's on "tenuous life support."
Emily Funkhouser died from burns she suffered in the driveway of her own home. Evan Funkhouser spent a month in the UVA Medical Center, recovering from second- and third-degree burns. The twins had climbed into the unlocked minivan, just after their mother stepped inside to answer the phone.
"An error in letting them sit on the porch, trusting them for a brief minute... shouldn't have led to this," said Debbie Funkhouser, their mother. "I shouldn't have been pulling my babies out of the vehicle that was burning."
"Her life was snuffed out. It was a lifetime of joys, ups and downs that we all get to enjoy that she was not going to get to experience," said Steven Funkhouser, their father.
Debbie says much of her self-imposed guilt comes from buying that van, a 2001 Ford Windstar.
A state police investigator pointed to an electrical problem as the likely cause of the fire.
The Funkhousers filed suit, claiming Ford knew of a design flaw and should have issued a safety recall for the van. Their attorney found several prior cases of Windstar electrical fires. In a 4-to-3 ruling last summer, the Virginia Supreme Court said some of those cases could be used as evidence.
"We felt at peace that finally we were going to get some closure, and have this put behind us," said Debbie.
"I felt confident that reasonable people thinking about it would agree with us, that it was a problem with the vehicle. Obviously it wasn't what our children did. No vehicle should be doing that," said Steven.
Ford's attorneys offered an alternate theory - that Emily or Evan started the fire with the van's cigarette lighter which constantly draws power - but a jury will probably never hear either side.
The Supreme Court granted Ford's request for a re-hearing and after one justice changed his vote ruled 4 to 3 that the other Windstar fires were not similar enough to be used at trial. That takes away the argument that Ford knew of a potential danger.
"Corporate benefits and profits were more important than the life of a human being that was snuffed out far too early," said Steven.
"They still have not investigated what went wrong. I feel like they rolled the dice, and the result of it was... her," said Debbie.
Nearly seven years after the fatal fire, Evan's physical scars are barely visible. But for his parents, the wounds are still just beneath the surface.
"It changes you as a mom, changes you as a person. I have fear when I shouldn't, because the unthinkable happened to our family. It's hard to let go and trust again," said Debbie.
The Funkhousers' attorney, Greg Webb, says this case could set a dangerous precedent by silencing other potential cases of defective or unsafe products.
Webb has petitioned the state Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling.
Read the full statement from Ford Motor Company below.
Full statement from Ford Motor Company's attorney
The death of Emily Funkhouser was tragic, and Ford has great sympathy for the Funkhouser family. Independent evidence, however, demonstrated that the fire in the Funkhousers' vehicle occurred because the young and unsupervised children were playing with the van's cigarette lighter, and they ignited flammable surgical gauze lying between the front seats.
Several fire experts investigated this tragic event and not a single one of them could find a defect in the vehicle. Nevertheless, the lawyers for the Funkhousers contended that Ford should have warned it was possible that the van could catch on fire—that was the sole basis of the Funkhousers' claim.
Ford was prepared to defend the design of the vehicle before an Albemarle County jury, but after the trial court ruled out evidence of unrelated incidents, the Funkhousers' lawyers decided that they did not want to try the case under that evidentiary ruling and preferred an "all or nothing" trip to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The Virginia Supreme Court's decision, and its careful analysis of this important issue, is exactly right and is consistent with the trial court's initial decision. Courts have a duty to make sure that juries hear all relevant evidence—and only the relevant evidence—about the causes of accidents and injuries. Under either a product defect theory or a warning theory, evidence of "other incidents" is relevant only if the incidents are substantially similar to the case before the jury.
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