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Jury to Determine Award in Suzuki Samurai Suit : Auto safety: The company now faces the same attorney who won $105 million from jury in GM case.

April 12, 1993|From Reuters

ATLANTA — A U.S. appeals court has ruled that a jury may decide the amount of damages Japan's Suzuki Motor Co. must pay for alleged rollover problems from its Samurai sport utility vehicle.

But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a jury trial is not needed to decide whether Suzuki is liable for injuries to a former local police officer in Georgia from a 1989 accident.

The court said in a decision, signed last week, that only the issue of the amount Suzuki should pay in compensatory and punitive damages should be determined by a jury.

The Suzuki Samurai has been a target of complaints from consumer groups, which contend that the small utility vehicle has a tendency to roll over when making turns.

The Georgia case stems from a collision on June 23, 1989, in which the Samurai driven by Fati Malautea of Riverdale, Ga., struck a Ford Taurus in a suburb south of Atlanta, and the Samurai rolled over.

Malautea, 42, was jarred from his seat belt, suffered serious brain damage and will never work again, said his lawyer, James Butler.

"This is an important decision in terms of automobile safety," said Butler, who also represented a Georgia couple who recently won a $105.2-million judgment against General Motors Corp. over the safety of its pickup trucks.

The appeals court upheld a ruling from Dec. 30, 1991, when U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield in Savannah fined Suzuki $5,000 and its lawyers $500 for engaging in what he said was a cover-up and for intentionally prolonging the case.

The appeals court said Suzuki had asked its affiliate and minority owner, GM, to market the Samurai in the United States. But the appeals court said GM declined to sell the vehicle, and cited a 1984 letter in which a GM engineer wrote Suzuki executives that the Samurai had "perceived rollover tendencies."

In March, 1989, the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said critics had failed to demonstrate that the vehicle had a tendency to roll over.

That same month, American Suzuki Motor Corp. settled lawsuits brought by seven states by agreeing to publicize that the Samurai may roll over from sharp turns.

But the company said at the time that its agreement with the states "affirms that the Samurai is a safe vehicle . . . "

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