Alabama Supreme Court overturns $82 million verdict against GM

posted on:
December 12, 2003

Phillip Rawls

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Supreme Court overturned an $82 million verdict against General Motors on Friday because of problems with the selection of jurors for the case.

The Supreme Court said Bullock Count Circuit Judge Burt Smithart erred when he didn’t grant GM’s request to exclude five potential jurors related to an attorney who was associated with one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs.

In May 2002, a Bullock County jury returned a $122 million verdict against GM for a wreck that left a child with severe brain injuries. The verdict was automatically cut to $82 million because of a state law limiting punitive damage verdicts.

The verdict stemmed from a two-vehicle collision on Dec. 10, 1999. Jeffrey Jernigan, then 12, was riding in the front seat of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with his seat belt on when the passenger compartment of the car collapsed around him.

In a lawsuit, the boy’s father, Bullock County Circuit Clerk Wilbert Jernigan, contended GM’s product was defective and dangerous. The jury agreed.

One of Jernigan’s attorneys, Jere Beasley, said Friday, “We’ll try it again, and in my opinion, the verdict will be the same. The tragedy of it is the child is still in the same condition.”

GM had maintained since 2002 that the trial was laced with bias.

GM spokeswoman Brenda Rios said the Supreme Court came to the right conclusion Friday. “We will vigorously defend the case if it goes to trial again,” she said.

In the ruling Friday, the Supreme Court said a new trial must be held because of the jury selection process. Five potential jurors were related by blood or marriage to state Sen. Myron Penn, a lawyer who is associated with one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs and who sat in the courtroom during jury selection. GM asked to have the five excluded, but the judge declined.

The Supreme Court said state law required the relatives’ removal. Because they weren’t, GM had to use its jury strikes to remove them, and that resulted in people ending up on the jury that GM likely would have removed if it had all of its jury strikes available, Justice Champ Lyons wrote.

In GM’s appeal to the state Supreme Court, the automaker argued that the plaintiffs didn’t prove a design defect. The Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, said the plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence for the jury to consider whether a safer, practical design was available to GM. Three justices agreed with GM and dissented.

Beasley said he was pleased the majority of the Supreme Court sided with the evidence presented by the plaintiffs. Likewise, GM’s spokeswoman was pleased that three justices said GM had no liability for the child’s injuries.

In Friday’s decision, the Supreme Court rejected arguments by GM that Smithart should not have handled the trial because he took a vacation to Mexico with one of Jernigan’s lawyers a month before the trial.

The majority decision, written by Lyons, was supported by Justices Bernard Harwood, Tom Woodall, and Douglas Johnstone. Dissenting were Justices Harold See, Jean Brown and Lyn Stuart. Acting Chief Justice Gorman Houston did not participate in the case.

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