The Alabama Supreme Court overturned an $89 million verdict against General Motors last week because of problems with the selection of jurors.
The Supreme Court said Bullock County 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. Judge Smithart automatically cut the verdict to $82 million because of state law limiting punitive damages to three times compensatory damages.
The verdict stemmed from a two-vehicle collision on December 10, 1999 when Jeffrey Jernigan was riding in the front seat wearing a seat belt when the Delta 88 driven by his brother was hit head-on by a Pontiac Grand Prix. The Grand Prix, a smaller car, fared better in the crash, according to plaintiff’s attorneys. Jernigan’s skull was fractured and he had brain surgery, which left him with no concept of danger and no inhibitions, according to testimony.
Greg Allen, an attorney with Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles said Jernigan was a superior student with plants to become a cardiac surgeon,
The plaintiffs alleged that GM changed the car’s passenger door beams and other framing designs for 1992 and 1993 model years to cut costs, but knew in 1991 that the changes affected the vehicle’s crashworthiness. The plaintiffs presented GM crash test documents to illustrate their claim that the company knew from its own tests that front seat passengers were at risk of serious head injuries after the design was changed, said Allen. A GM engineer testified the tests indicated that the redesigned Delta 88 had a likelihood of causing serious head injuries.
Defender Robert D. Hays of King & Spalding in Atlanta said the high speeds of the colliding vehicles – approaching 100 mph – was what made the accident so catastrophic. “Anybody in any car is going to have a 50-50 chance of being killed or seriously injured with that kind of speed,” he said.
The defense also argued that the judge excluded important evidence explaining the car’s crashworthiness ranking – four out of five stars – and Ford’s own crash testing, which Hays said, showed the car performed better than the car the plaintiff alleged had a superior design.
In a lawsuit, the boy’s father, Bullock County Circuit Clerk, Wilbert Jernigan, contended GM’s products was defective and dangerous. The jury agreed.
One of Jernigan’s attorneys, Jere Beasley, said, “We’ll try it again and in my opinion, the verdict will be the same.”
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.
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 Smithart declined.
Christy Crow, an attorney with Jinks, Daniel & Crow of Union Springs, a plaintiff firm in the case, said “The Supreme Court reversed the jury based on the trial court allowing five potential jurors to remain on the jury panel that were related to Myron Penn. At the time, Penn was of counsel with then named Jinks, Daniel, Crow & Seaborn, but he had not worked on the Jernigan case, had no financial interest in the Jernigan case, and he did not maintain an office or staff at the Jinks firm. Judge Smithart followed the then existing law in making his decision to allow these potential jurors on the panel. In the Jernigan case, the Supreme Court expanded the law.”
Crow also said, “None of the five potential jurors in question deliberated in the case nor participated in any way in determining whether the Jernigans should receive a verdict or the amount of the verdict that was returned in favor of the Jernigans.”
Crow said Acting Chief Justice Gorman Houston recused himself from the decision because of his relationship with Defense Attorney Jim Martin, but four of the justices concurred with Justice Champ Lyon who wrote the opinion to overturn the verdict with three justices desenting. Crow said no date has been set for the retrial.