A claim that General Motors Corp., in a cost-cutting move, reduced the crashworthiness of the front passenger compartment of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 — leading to a devastating brain injury to a 12-year-old boy — has led to a $122 million verdict against the automaker. The plaintiffs’ win was aided by the use of internal GM documents, including one memo suggesting that the Delta 88 needed to be equipped with a passenger-side air bag to improve the vehicle’s head injury safety performance, according to lead plaintiffs’ attorney J. Greg Allen of Montgomery, Ala.’s Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles. “The document showed that General Motors knew prior to this model year that it had a ‘serious head injury’ car, and that these injuries could only be minimized by air bags.”
The defense contends, however, that the verdict was spurred by the jurors’ sympathy for the lead plaintiff and by the location of the trial — Bullock County, Ala. “Alabama historically has been a tough venue for corporate defendants,” said Robert Hays of Atlanta’s King & Spalding. “That’s changed in the last few years, but Bullock County is still a very tough jurisdiction.” Jernigan v. GM Corp., No. CV2000-104.
Jeffrey Jernigan was injured when a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 driven by his brother in Bullock, Ala., was hit by a Pontiac Grand Prix coming from the opposite direction. The right front corner of the Oldsmobile hit the right front corner of the Grand Prix and the floor board and roof of the Delta 88 collapsed.
Jeffrey hit his head on the “A” pillar, fracturing his skull, said Allen. Jeffrey underwent surgery to remove the left frontal lobe of his brain, but the injury left him with “no concept of danger and no control of his impulses,” Allen said. “He needs 24-hour care,” and will have to be institutionalized.
His father filed a products liability action against General Motors contending that his son sustained the brain injury because General Motors had lessened the strength of the door beams, front rails and lower rails in the passenger compartment of the Delta 88 as part of a cost reduction program, Allen said. To demonstrate this point at trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys brought in door beams from a previous model of the Delta 88, then compared it to the door from the 1993 model, Allen said.
“We also showed the damage to the Grand Prix. The smaller car had what we suggested -bigger door beams/’ Allen said. The Grand Prix’s passenger compartment survived the impact of the collision, he said.
During discovery, the plaintiffs requested documents from GM, Allen said. Among the plaintiffs’ evidence was a 1993 memo about a proposed addition of air bags to the Delta 88 and information on crash tests which indicated serious head damage to dummies. The documents revealed, he said, that General Motors knew by 1991 that there was “a serious head injury problem.”
“The car was tested with air bags, but it was sold without them,” Allen said. “If GM had tested it with air bags, it would have known there would be serious head injuries. We weren’t saying that the car should have had an air bag, but that GM shouldn’t have reduced the strength if it was sold without air bags.”
General Motors contended that the speed of the cars and the impact of the collision caused the collapse of the passenger compartment. GM estimated that the total speed at impact was approaching 100 mph. “No other car could have performed differently,” Hays said. “There was no evidence of design defect,” he contended. The Delta 88, he added, “had a four-star crashworthiness rating.” The highest ranking is five stars.
A Union Springs, Ala., jury awarded $22 million in compensatories and $100 million in punitives. The punitives were reduced to $60 million in conformance with Alabama’s caps on punitives.
“General Motors will pursue appropriate remedies,” Hays said.