Ford has lost its first case in 12 years of rollover legal actions involving the Explorer . The verdict is another setback to the Explorer’s reputation and is likely to stir up the debate on SUV safety regulations. If manufacturers want to avoid such damaging legal cases, they must ensure that safety is the overriding priority in the design of their vehicles.

The verdict is one of the most significant legal verdicts ever against the manufacturer and marks the first loss after 11 victories in accident lawsuits involving the Explorer. The jury at the Californian San Diego Superior court found that Benetta Buell-Wilson’s serious injuries were due to design defects in her 1997 Explorer. The court also found that the manufacturer was aware of these problems but did nothing to correct them.

Despite continual claims by Ford that there is no defect with the Explorer this is a major blow to the best selling SUV’s reputation. Ford’s design safety had already been questioned in 11 prior rollover cases involving the Explorer though Ford had always been victorious. The company is likely to appeal against the ruling.

Even though the payout will almost certainly be reduced on appeal, the verdict has proved a satisfying victory for US consumer groups over the strong and powerful world of car manufacturing. It will offer greater reassurance to the public that automotive manufacturers will be held responsible for any design flaws and, more importantly, should encourage manufacturers to re-examine their own procedures and safety checks.

These punitive damages will also send an important but difficult message to the industry. The fact that the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had previously found Ford’s SUV safe to drive did not prevent this jury from contradicting the federal safety regulator.

However, as SUV safety is still provoking frenzied debate in the US, this will only serve to increase the number of regulations applying to these types of vehicles. It may be that manufacturers will have to pay greater attention to the design phase when producing SUVs, if only to avoid the barrage of negative publicity that Ford will receive over this ruling.