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$132 million awarded against Ford in 2001 crash

Nine years after former Meridian High standout and top New York Mets baseball prospect Brian Cole was killed in a 2001 accident, a Jasper County jury on Thursday awarded his family more than $131 million in a lawsuit against Ford Motor Co.

Cole, 22, was killed March 31, 2001, when he was thrown from a 2001 Ford Explorer.

"It's the largest award ever against Ford in a lawsuit involving a Ford Explorer or Ford Expedition," said lead Cole family attorney Tab Turner of Arkansas, who filed many lawsuits on behalf of clients against Ford Motor Co. involving Explorer and Expedition accidents.

A Ford official acknowledged the award is one of the largest initial awards ever against the company.

The jury awarded Cole's cousin, Ryan Cole, who was injured in the accident, $1.5 million.

This was the family's third attempt to win an award against Ford. The previous trials ended in hung juries.

After about 2 1/2 hours, the jury came back with the $132.5 million decision during the compensatory part of the case. Ford settled for an undisclosed amount in the punitive-damage phase.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an $82.6 million verdict awarded to a California woman paralyzed in a Explorer rollover accident.

Cole, a 1997 Meridian High graduate, was selected to the Dandy Dozen for football in 1996 and is one of three Mississippi prep athletes to hit four home runs in a game, a state record.

He was driving to Mississippi after spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla., when the accident occurred on I-10 near the Florida-Georgia line.

The lawsuit said Brian Cole veered to avoid a vehicle and the SUV rolled over. He was thrown from the vehicle and later died at the Florida hospital. Ryan Cole, then 17, survived the crash.

The lawsuit blamed Brian Cole's death on a defective seatbelt and the tendency for that model to roll over.

But Ford's corporate spokeswoman Marcey Evans said Thursday in an e-mail to The Clarion-Ledger that it was unfair to blame Ford for the accident. The company says excessive speed and Brian Cole not wearing a seatbelt caused his death.

"This was a tragic accident, and our sympathy goes out to the Cole family for their loss. But it was unfair of them to blame Ford," Evans said. "Brian Cole had been driving over 80 mph when he drifted off the road for unknown reasons, suddenly turned his steering wheel 295 degrees, lost control and caused the vehicle to roll over more than three times."

She said he was ejected because he was not wearing his seatbelt, but Ryan Cole survived because his was buckled.

"The court denied Ford a fair trial by excluding evidence that the jury should have heard and considered about Brian's driving and the speculative nature of plaintiffs' claims," Evans said.

Mets officials called Brian Cole one of their top three prospects. He was projected to be a starter on the major league team at the start of the 2003 baseball season.

Brian Cole was recruited to play college football but chose baseball.

By: Jimmie E. Gates • • September 3, 2010