Law Cuts GM Suit Damages to $82 Million

posted on:
May 4, 2002

author:
Phillip Rawls

A $122 million verdict against General Motors for a collision that left a child with permanent brain damage will automatically be cit to $82 million under a state law limiting punitive damages, a GM spokesman said.

Spokesman Jay cooney also said the company will appeal.

Thursday’s verdict stemmed from a head-on collision on Def. 10, 1999, near Smut Eye, 40 miles southeast of Montgomery.

Jeffrey Jernigan, then 12, was in the front seat of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with his seat belt on when the passenger compartment of the car collapsed on him, causing him to lose part of his brain, said Plaintiff’s lawyer Jere Beasley.

The boy’s father, Wilbert Jernigan, sued GM, contending the car was defective and dangerous.

“GM put a cost reduction program into effect prior to the manufacture and sale of the Oldsmobile, which resulted in significant safety problems,” Beasley said at a news conference Friday.

Cooney said the Oldsmobile met or exceeded every federal safety standard.

Beasley introduced in the trial two cutaway doors from Oldsmobiles. One of them before the design change and had a wide metal brace the one after the design change had a round brace Beasley said “looks like a water pipe.”

His law partner, Greg Allen, said the other vehicle in the collision, a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix also made by GM, had a stronger safety features and survived the accident with it passenger compartment intact.

Before the collision, Jeffrey Jernigan had been an “A” student and wanted to be a doctor like his uncle. Now, the 16-year-old boy has lost his ability to make judgements, particularly about his safety, and can’t be left alone, his mother, Margaret Jernigan, said.

“He has changed drastically. It’s like having a totally different person in your house,” she said.

The verdict was the second largest against GM in Alabama. In 1996, Beasley’s law firm won a $150 million verdict over a traffic accident that left a man paralyzed in nearby Lowndes County. That case was settled on appeal for a smaller amount that neither side would disclose.

In the Bullock County case, the jury awarded $20 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to Jeffrey and $2 million in compensatory damages to his father.

In the 1980s, Alabama got the reputation for “jackpot justice” because of the many large jury verdicts in the state. In 1999, the Legislature passed a law limiting a person’s punitive damages to three times the compensatory damages. The law does not restrict how much a jury can award, but requires a judge to cut the amount to fit the law.

The GM verdict rates as one of Alabama’s biggest auto cases, even with the mandatory reduction applied.

“Verdicts like this take us back to yesteryear in Alabama when juries routinely award plaintiffs humongous amounts of money in highly questionable cases,” GM’s spokesman said.

Cooney said that on appeal GM will maintain “the trial was laced with bias and prejudice.” He said the company tries without success to get the case moved out of Bullock County because the boy’s father is the county circuit clerk, who handles most court documents.

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