In 1999 General Motors was hit with the largest verdict ever in a product liability lawsuit. A California jury awarded $4.8 billion to six people who had suffered severe burns when their 1979 Chevy Malibu burst into flames.
On Christmas Eve 1993, Patricia Anderson along with her four children and a family friend were traveling home from evening church services, when a drunk driver plowed into a 1979 Chevy Malibu while stopped at a red light. The impact from the accident damaged the car's gas tank causing the car to burst into flames. All six passengers in the car suffered severe burns. One child had to have her hand amputated.
In the personal injury lawsuit, the victims claimed that the placement of the gas tank near the rear bumper of the car was an unsafe design. The plaintiffs alleged that the severe injuries could have been avoided if the carmaker had moved the gas tank forward.
During the trial several damning pieces of evidence came to light, which showed that GM was aware of the danger that the gas tank posed. An internal memo written during the early 1970's showed that GM could have made the gas tank safer at a cost of less than $10 per vehicle. The company decided that it would be cheaper to settle the legal challenges resulting from the defect rather than making the cars safer.
The jury was outraged by the company's callous attitude towards human life and suffering. General Motor's defense could not shake the impression that the company valued profits more than people. The jury found that the manufacturer's negligence was 95% at fault for the plaintiff's injuries.
Compensatory damages of more than $100 million were awarded to cover the plaintiffs medical costs and for their pain suffering and disfigurement. However, this large award did not seem adequate to change the behavior America's largest corporation. The jury ordered the company to pay $4.8 billion dollars in punitive damages. This is largest ever verdict in a personal injury lawsuit.
The severe burns suffered helped elicit sympathy from the jury. Severe burns are extremely painful, require years of costly treatment and can cause lifelong disfigurement. The fact that four of the victims were young children made the plaintiff's case even stronger. At the time GMC was the largest corporation in America, this fact convinced the jury that a large verdict would be necessary to influence the company's action. The impression that it was an innocent family challenging a large corporation that views people simply as numbers led to the huge award.
Subsequent, appeals have lowered the total amount that the company must pay. However, this case illustrates to what extent personal injury law can hold large companies responsible for the safety of their products.
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