Jury awards subject of scrutiny

July 18, 1999

Here is an excerpt of an editorial from the Los Angeles Times, which was published Wednesday.

A CALIFORNIA jury recently handed down a $4.8-billion punitive damage award against General Motors in an auto accident in which passengers were horribly burned. Obviously, and understandably, the jury acted both out of sympathy with the victims and outrage against the auto maker. But it is virtually certain that any award of this size will be drastically reduced by either the trial judge or on appeal.

In fact, public trust in product liability cases tried by juries might well be going down the drain with these excessive awards. Many legal experts believe that astronomical punitive damages ultimately will invite strict federal limits on awards.

The judgment against General Motors went to survivors of a fiery crash that occurred when a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu was rear-ended by a drunk driver. What damned GM before this jury was an internal document showing that the company calculated it would come out better financially by paying for accident injuries than making the Malibu's fuel system safer at a cost of $8.59 per car.

In a 1978 case eerily similar to this one, $125 million in punitive damages involving Ford's Pinto was reduced to $3.5 million.

More than half the states are trying to grapple with the unpredictability of punitive damages in liability cases, either imposing limits on the size of the awards or restricting conditions under which they can be imposed.

The United States is unique in having a civil jury system and in allowing juries to impose punitive damages. But unpredictable decisions might prove to be the weakest point in the American system.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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