Memphis man wins $12.9 million suit against Ford after crash

(WMC-TV) - A crash on Covington Pike killed two men and left a 6-year-old boy paralyzed by his seat belt.

What happened next changed things for everyone involved. The boy's family fought the maker of that seat belt -- and won.

In 18-years of life, Billy Meals has come a long way. He made it all the way to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's national tournament.

On the court, he is a fierce competitor.

"I can do just about anything anybody else can do," said Billy Meals.

Billy's teammates look to him to lead.

"Try to get them going, and tell them to keep hope and keep trying cause I'm the oldest on the team so all the other ones are young, they're like 8th grade or freshmen so I try to teach them as much as I know," he said.

Billy Meals' love for basketball started at an early age.

He got his first basketball goal at age six, just weeks before his life changed forever.

In January 2002, a drunk driver hit the Mercury Grand Marquis he was riding in, killing his father and grandfather. Billy was paralyzed from the waist down.

"Growing up without a father, that's probably the hardest," Billy said. "That's harder than being in a wheelchair cause your father is someone you look up to, you know. Every kid looks up to his dad."

Weeks after the crash, Billy and his mom met attorney Houston Gordon and filed suit against Ford Motor Company.

After a seven and a half week trial, Gordon convinced a jury that the seat belt in the back of that Ford, where Billy was riding, did not do its job.

"Ford's president at the time referred to them as the forgotten children and a lot of articles and cases have referred to them as children who were in the child safety gap," said Houston Gordon.

Gordon argued the three point seat belt did not fit small children less than five feet tall. He says because of that, many children would put the upper part of the seat belt behind them, using the lap belt as their only restraint.

Gordon argued that lap belt literally cut Billy Meals in half.

"The lap belt basically caused him to jackknife over the belt, so his back went like that," demonstrated Gordon.

A jury delivered a $43 million verdict against Ford.

On appeal, a judge reduced that amount to $12.9 million.

Now the case is in the hands of the Tennessee Supreme Court, who will ultimately decide how much Ford Motor Company will pay.

As a result of injuries like Billy's, car manufacturers pushed for legislation requiring children ride in booster seats. More car models became equipped with five-point safety harnesses for children.

Eleven years after the accident that changed his life, Billy Meals finds solace on the basketball court.

He wants to play in college and coach others just like him.

"Help other people, in similar situations, and let them know that it's alright and you can overcome this. It'll make you a better person," he said.

Ford declined to comment on this story, saying it cannot comment on pending litigation.

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