An Alabama jury has awarded a $122 million dollar verdict to a boy who suffered permanent brain damage in a high-speed, head-on collision, when the passenger compartment of the Oldsmobile Delta 88 he was riding in collapsed on him. Defense attorneys argued that no car on the road could have withstood such a collision, and that driver error, not design flaw, was the sole cause of the boy’s injuries. But the plaintiff’s legal team claimed GM had built a cheap, flimsy vehicle to cut costs at the expense of their customers’ safety. As a result, they alleged, the passenger compartment of the car offered the victim no protection upon impact.

The case began on Dec. 10, 1999: 12-year old Jeffrey Jernigan was riding in the front passenger seat of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 driven by his older teenage brother, when they were struck head on by another vehicle. According to the plaintiff’s experts, both cars were traveling at between 35 and 40 mph, meaning the total impact force was 70 to 80 mph. But defense experts argued that the cars were going 50 mph or more, resulting in an impact force of more than 100 mph. Whatever the case, the result was that Jeffrey, who was wearing his seatbelt, suffered such severe head and brain injuries that a frontal lobotomy was necessary to save his life.

The police investigation absolved Jeffrey’s brother of any responsibility for the crash, placing blame for the accident solely on the other driver – who was originally a defendant in this case, but who settled before trial. That left only the family’s claim against General Motors to be resolved. The jury came down solidly on the side of the plaintiffs, and hit GM with $100 million in punitive damages for putting such a dangerous vehicle on the road in the first place.

Plaintiff’s counsel Jere Beasley, of Montgomery, Ala., believes the result is totally justified.. “GM fought us hard. But the fact is, they put profits over safety, and it cost a young man his future,” he said. According to Beasley, his clients’ case against GM was so strong that it should have settled long before reaching trial. In fact, he noted, GM offered them $8 million to settle, then later suggested that it would be willing to pay $10 million. Beasley felt those figures were far too low.

His partner and co-counsel Greg Allen, however, believed that the defense attorneys’ hands were tied. “I think the defense lawyers understood they had to take the spear on this one, basically as a matter of GM corporate policy,” Allen said. “The problem was that, although the company had paid huge dollars after big verdicts, they simply weren’t prepared to pay that kind of money voluntarily.”

Beasley wasn’t so sure. He said he feared all along that he was being set up for an ambush. “To be honest, I could never understand why the defense decided to try this case,” Beasley said. “I kept thinking, ‘Certainly, there’s something we’re missing!’ I was really worried that we were failing to see what their defense was.”

Cost-Cutting Measures

Beasley’s concerns were legitimate. The facts of the case were extremely technical, and there was plenty of room for both sides to maneuver and offer conflicting interpretations of the evidence. Essentially, the trial battle focused on GM’s so-called second-generation H-car platform-the frame used from 1992 to 1999 for the Buick LeSabre, Pontiac Bonneville, and Oldsmobile Delta 88.

While reviewing the avalanche of documents produced by GM during discovery, Allen had found numerous cryptic references to an “1800 Project” and “2500 Project” that seemed to involve the H-car. Curious, he pressed hard for more information, finally flying to Detroit to depose key GM personnel.

At first, GM engineers told Allen that the projects were arbitrarily named “vehicle enhancement programs” aimed at reducing noise and vibration. Then another engineer told him that “1,800” and “2,500” referred to a vehicle weight reduction program. “It took a lot of discovery to get to the truth,” Allen said.

Playing one story off another and confronting the engineers with the contradictions, he finally got them to admit that the figures referred to targeted dollar savings. It turned out that these were cost-reduction Beasley said. “Management at General Motors mandated that the design engineers cut this much money from the cost of manufacturing the cars, at the expense of significant safety features.”

Especially relevant to the facts of this case, said Beasley, was the reduction in the strength of the car doors. Under the program, a thick, wide-steel reinforcement beam was replaced by “a little pipe,” 46 percent lighter than the original beam. The body’s principle reinforcement beam – the top rail, or “shotgun rail” – was cut from 40-ksl steel to a softer 30-ksi steel, on the grounds that plastic fenders could not be properly attached to the harder metal. Similarly, the lower or “sid” rails (running inside the vehicle’s rocker beams on each side) were shortened and narrowed, and no longer tied to the rear of the frame, which reduced strength.

The torque-box reinforcement plate was left out entirely an omission that Allen dramatized at trial by presenting an internal GMmemo stating that Ford’s frame designs Were “five times stronger than ours” because of torque-box reinforcement.

‘They Took a Gamble’

Having thus argued that GM had produced a badly designed vehicle, Allen and Beasley next wanted to show that GM knew the car was dangerous, but didn’t tare. To do that, they used GM’s crash-test results for the H-platform design. “They-got bad readings on the HIC [Head Injury Criteria] numbers,” exceeding GM’s internal acceptable standards, Beasley said, even in a H-body equipped with airbags. Despite that fact, he said, the 1993 Delta 88 was not equipped with a passenger-side airbag.

“GM gambled when they made the design changes,” Beasley said. “They knew the likelihood of severe brain injury and took the risk anyway. And Jeffrey Jernigan was the loser.”

Not so, counters lead defense attorney Robert Hayes, of Atlanta. He said the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ arguments “mischaracterizcd” which cost-reduction measures applied to which cars, and the actual nature of those changes. Furthermore, he said that some of the data that reached the jury had nothing to do with the car in question. “The plaintiffs’ lawyers took general statements about [a wide range of] vehicles and applied them to specific parts of this vehicle without any testimony or documents to link the two,” he said.

Hayes said discussions about the 1800 and 2500 Projects were prime examples of this sort of factual confusion. “One of the programs didn’t apply at all to this vehicle; it was just a complete inaccuracy,” he said. “The other applied to this vehicle in part, but there was no evidence what so ever that the cost efforts were aimed in anyway at the design that they were criticizing.”

In fact, he said, the Oldsmobile Delta 88 is an extremely safe vehicle. ‘The plaintiffs’ attorneys produced no evidence that there was any design defect in the car,” Hayes said. “We put more than a hundred tests into evidence showing that the car was safe. General Motors does more testing than any other manufacturer in the world.”

How Bad Was The Crash?

In addition to design issues, the trial also involved a lot of argun1ent about the speed of the impact. The plaintiffs claimed that the cars were going slow enough that the car’s design was a primary factor in causing Jeffrey Jernigan’s injuries. GM countered that the cars were going so fast that he would have suffered similar injuries in any passenger car on the market at the time of the collision. Since it was ahead-on crash, the speed of both cars must be added together to get a true read of the impact’s severity.

Beasley and Allen argued that the cars were traveling at less than 40 mph, whereas GM maintained that both cars were going closer to 50 mph. “The impact forces were the, equivalent of driving a vehicle head-first off a three- to
four-story building.” said Jay Cooney, GM’s director of legal communications, in a press statement.

However, Beasley says he “caught” on a GM’s expert on cross-examination, and forced him to adjust his delta estimates – which indicate rate of deceleration, a vital measure of an impact’s severity -10 agree with the plaintiff’s contentions. He did this by confronting the experts with delta information retrieved from the Pontiac Bonneville’s “black box” on-board data recorder. (Because the Oldsmobile didn’t contain a black box, the plaintiffs relied on data from the Bonneville, which is built on the same platform.)

“At trial; he had to change his story arid increase his delta Vs over those he’d given in deposition,” Beasley said. “Otherwise his testimony would have collapsed on him.” Despite the fact that black box data is becoming a hot evidentiary issue- and is often the subject of contentious discovery battles – Beasley said there were no particular difficulties in obtaining the simple delta V figures, which were “all we really needed in this case.”

Once GM’s expert revised his delta estimates, the plaintiffs’ chief forensic expert, Joe Burton, was able to testify that within this agreed range, the crash would not have resulted in such severe injuries but for GM’s design shortcomings. Joe testified that in this type of crash, this young man should have walked away from the accident with miI1imal injuries – and certainly not with a head injury,” Beasley said.

The coup de grace, Beasley said, came when the jurors saw the two cars that had been involved in the accident The other car was also made by GM – a Pontiac Grand Prix that was lighter than the Delta 88, but had “every safety feature that they had cut out of the Oldsmobile,” Beasley said. Side by side, he said, even a layperson could easily see that the Pontiac’s “passenger compartment survived the accident without any difficulty, even though you’d think the lighter vehicle should have had more damage.”

Beasley was amazed that the defense agreed to the viewing, and said that – if it was a conscious strategy – “it backfired on them big time.”

A Ruined life

The human tragedy of the accident was the loss of an unusually promising young man. Jeffrey Jernigan. at 12, was “brilliant,” according to Allen, a straight-A student who tested in the 99th percentile.

Several school teachers were called as witnesses, and they described Jeffrey’s intelligence and strong leadership abilities, and said he was a “role model” to his peers. The school principal rated Jeffrey as one of the five most promising students she’d ever seen, but said that when she visited him after the accident he no longer even recognized her.

Jeffrey’s head injuries necessitated the removal of his left frontal lobe “essentially a lobotomy.” said Allen. While he is physically normal for his age, his personality has completely changed, and his intelligence is far below normal.

He also has lost any sense of danger, meaning that, if left unattended for even a moment, he will wander off, even into oncoming traffic.

GM deposed Jeffrey during the discovery phase, but his answers were nonsensical, disjointed fantasies, Allen said. Thereafter, the automaker’s lawyers won a motion to preclude him from appearing in the courtroom, and so the jury never saw him at trial. They did see his picture however, with a shockingly deep dent in his forehead. And they heard the testimony from both his parents, and his older brother, now a medica1 student in Chicago who was driving the car when the accident occurred.

“He still feels guilty, obviously, even though the accident investigation made clear that there was nothing he could have done,” Allen said.

During testimony, the brother repeatedly broke down in tears, and ultimately could not finish. The final straw came when he was attempting to explain how his brother, with whom he had been very close, was now an unrecognizable personality. “He just lost it,” Allen said. “So we stopped, and GM said it had no questions.”

But Allen insists that the huge verdict was not driven by sympathy, “I think it was more outrage and anger at what GM did,” he said.

Fast Verdict

The trial lasted a little more than a week, but the jury came back with its king-size plaintiff’s verdict in just over an hour. The 12-member panel was made up of six men and six women of varying ages and backgrounds, plus three alternates who did not end up participating in deliberations.

Beasley said he used voir dire to seek out intelligent, practical-minded jurors. “We wanted a jury that would understand the technical parts of the case. For example, how the ‘crumple zone’ is supposed to absorb the force of the impact, and so on,” Beasley said. “We felt that if we didn’t have that type of juror, that perhaps General Motors could out-expert us.”

The verdict broke down as $20 million in compensatory damages for Jeffrey ($9.7 for ‘life’ care; the remainder for mental anguish, pain and suffering. emotional distress, etc., projected over a 6D-year life expectancy), $2 million in compensatory damages for his father (for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and the loss of Jeffrey’s companionship), and $100 million in punitives.

Under Alabama’s tort-reform law, which limits punitive damage awards to three times the amount of compensatories, the punitive award was reduced to $60 million, for a total final verdict of $82 million.

The judge did not allow post-verdict interviews, but spoke to the jurors himself, and Beasley said he learned through “courthouse talk” that the jury was principally outraged that there were still “defective” H body GM vehicles on the road. “They told him that they believed these vehicles should be recalled by General Motors, and that’s what they really wanted to put in their verdict, if they could have,” Beasley said.

Hayes said that GM is considering its options. For example, he believes that the plaintiffs were not held to the proper standard under state law for proving that a vehicle defect caused the injury.

“This was a head-on collision with an impact of nearly 100mph,” Hayes said. “That’s just beyond the engineering limits of this or any other car. They were unable to identify any car at all, any other design that would have reduced the injuries that this boy unfortunately received. That’s a requirement under Alabama law, and we don’t believe that it was met here.”

He also noted that “there was a great deal of sympathy involved in the jury verdict,” and that Bullock County, Ala, is widely known as “a particularly tough venue for corporate defendants in personal injury cases.”

Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Jere Locke Beasley and J. Greg AlIen, of Beasley. Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.e., in Montgomery, A1a; Walter McGowan of Tuskegee, Ala. and Lynn Jinks of Union Springs, Ala. Defense Attorney: Robert Hayes of King & Spalding in Atlanta (lead counsel).

The Case, Jernigan v. General Motors; Bullock County Circuit Court, Union Springs, Ala. Judge L. Bernard Smithhart.

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