Pandering to public whims can cut both ways. That's a lesson learned by Ford (NYSE:F) this month, as a courtroom loss took back a tiny portion of the firm's SUV-driven profits. Last week, a federal jury ordered the firm to pay at least $122 million in compensatory damages plus $246 million in punitive damages in the case of a woman paralyzed when her Explorer rolled after she tried to dodge a metal object on the road.

In recent government rollover tests, several popular SUVs, including Ford's Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer, GM's (NYSE:GM) Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, and Toyota's (NYSE:TM) Tacoma extended cab, all failed to keep four on the floor. The wider-hipped DaimlerChrysler (NYSE:DCX) Dodge Durango and Honda's (NYSE:HMC) Pilot fared better, as did all the passenger cars.

The results seem to confirm the established notion -- sometimes disputed by the carmakers -- that SUVs have a much greater risk of rolling over and severely injuring their occupants.

The SUV has been a hot seller for over a decade, rising to nearly 25% of the car market. In that time, fatalities from rollover crashes have become increasingly common. Though they are only about 10% of crashes, rollovers account for one-third of highway crash fatalities. This year, preliminary government reports indicate the highest number of traffic fatalities since 1990, and a 10% increase in SUV rollover deaths since last year.

For its part, the automaker claims that such accidents are owed to driver error. Though I loathe the gas-sucking, lumbering behemoths on our roads, I have driven pickup trucks long enough to know that driving habits need to change in high, heavy vehicles.

But will appeals to personal responsibility be enough to keep other automakers from being stung by SUV-related safety lawsuits? Do automakers bear any liability when their most popular vehicles fail to perform as safely as other designs? Ultimately, your opinion -- and mine -- may not matter. It will be the opinion of the folks in the jury box that decides how much this problem will cost the companies, shareholders, and consumers.

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Fool contributor Seth Jayson spends more time on a bike than behind a car wheel, and that's why he owns no company mentioned. View his Fool profile here.