Ga. court throws out $105 million verdict in fatal GM pickup truck fire

June 14, 1994|By New York Times News Service

The Georgia Court of Appeals, handing General Motors Corp. a victory yesterday, threw out the verdict of a jury that had awarded $105 million to the family of a teen-ager killed when his GMC pickup truck was struck by another vehicle and exploded into flame.

As a result of the ruling, the case will be sent back to a lower state court for retrial. The $105 million jury award against General Motors last year was one of the highest ever in a product liability case.

The Georgia case, which involved the 1989 death of Shannon Moseley, drew national attention to allegations that full-size Chevrolet and GMC pickups produced from 1973 to 1987 were prone to erupting into fire after side-impact collisions because the vehicles' fuel tanks were mounted outside the body's frame.

General Motors has denied the accusation and refused a request last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to voluntarily recall the pickups.

"We see this as a victory for us," said Ed Lechtzin, a GM spokesman.

But in addressing the jury's award of $101 million in punitive damages against GM, the appeals court held that evidence submitted in the case showed that the company was aware that the gas tanks posed a hazard but because of cost did not move to make them safer. About 4.7 million GM pickups with "sidesaddle" fuel tanks are still on the road.

In voiding the GM verdict, the appeals court held that lawyers for the plaintiff had, among other things, improperly referred throughout the 1993 trial to 120 other lawsuits involving fires and GM pickups without providing the jury with evidence substantially linking those lawsuits to the Moseley case.

References to other trials may be used only if similarities are legally established, the appeals court said. "Plaintiffs' counsel's repeated breach of that ruling can only be regarded as deliberate," the court said.

The Moseleys' lawyers, James Butler Jr. and Robert Cheeley, had argued that Shannon Moseley burned to death because of the fuel-tank design and that jurors should punish the company so severely that federal regulators would feel compelled to order a recall. They also charged that GM had covered up its knowledge of the hazard.

The company argued that the design was safe and that the teen-ager was killed by the impact of the collision and was dead before the fire started.

Neither Mr. Butler nor Mr. Cheeley returned telephone calls seeking comment on whether they planned to appeal yesterday's decision or proceed with a new trial.

Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group in Washington, said he was delighted with the appeals court decision because far more information about the reported hazards of the pickup truck were available today than when the Moseley case was originally tried.

"There is so much more good information available today for a lawyer that they might break the bank against GM the next time," he said.

The highway safety agency is studying whether to demand a recall of the GMC pickups.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.