General Motors Corp. has settles a lawsuit filed over the deaths of five people when their car ran off a gravel road and hit a tree, allegedly because of a malfunctioning air bag and weak roof.

The amount of the settlement Thursday was sealed by a state court and not disclosed. General Motors officials contend the driver’s air bag did not malfunction and that the deaths were caused by the car hitting the tree at 60 mph.

The lawsuit was filed following the May 1997 accident in which five people were killed, including four generations of a Tuscaloosa family. Killed in the accident were Elizabeth Aultman, 65, her mother, Emma Averette, 82, Aultman’s daughter, Sandra Cordia, 21, and granddaughter, Katelyn Cordia, 20 months, and a cousin, Allan Livingston, 12. They were headed to a family reunion at the time of the accident in neighboring Bibb County.

The suit claimed the accident was caused by the unexpected deployment of the driver’s air bag and that the roof on the 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme should not have collapsed when the car flipped over and hit a tree.

Montgomery attorney Jere Beasley, whose law firm represented the Aultman family, said Friday the accident happened when a rock hit the bottom of the car, deploying the air bag and causing the driver to lose control. He said all five were wearing seat belts.

Beasley said General Motors had not notified National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the accident even though 1995 and 1996 models of the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme had been recalled because of the air bag systems.

“Hopefully, the revelations from this case will keep others from being needlessly killed by a GM automobile with a defective airbag and defective roof structure,” Beasley said.

General Motors spokesman Jay Cooney said the automaker did not notify the traffic safety administration because the company did not believe the accident involved the unexpected deployment of air bags. He said 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes are safe cars.

“The air bag didn’t have anything to do with this accident,” said Cooney, director of legal communication fro General Motors. “The reality is that the vehicle went into a tree roof first at 60 mph. It was a very violent accident.”

Cooney said Beasley originally filed the case claiming the car’s roof failed and then later amended the suit to include the allegation about the air bag.

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