May 2002 – An Alabama jury hit General Motors Corp. with a $122 million verdict – $100 million of which was punitive damages – over a 12-year-old boy’s catastrophic head injury in a crash of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88.
The trial judge cut punitive damages to $60 million under Alabama’s cap, which limits punitives to three times compensatories. Reducing the total verdict to $82 million, the judge denied defense motions seeking a new trial. The case is on appeal at the Alabama Supreme Court.
Now 15, 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, said lead Plaintiffs’ attorney J. Greg Allen, a partner at Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles of Montgomery, Ala. Jeffrey fractured his skull and had brain surgery, which left him with no concept of danger and no inhibitions. He needs constant supervision, said Allen. The boy was a superior student with plans to become a cardiac surgeon, he said.
The plaintiffs alleged that GM changed the car’s passenger-door beams and other framing designs for the 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 a serious head injury, Allen said.
Defender Robert D. Hays of King & Spalding in Atlanta says 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 will argue 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 that the car performed better than the car the plaintiffs alleged had a superior design.