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gas tank exploded, leaves Superior Court with attorney
Brian Panish.

Judge Cuts Award Against GM to $1.2 Billion

August 27, 1999|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles judge reduced a record $4.9-billion jury award against General Motors to about $1.2 billion Thursday, after lawyers for the company argued that the original award was excessive by any legal standard.

The judge let stand the $107 million awarded two women and four children for the pain and disfigurement they suffered in a blazing rear-end collision. But he pruned the jury's $4.8-billion punitive judgment against the world's largest car company to $1.09 billion.

The victims of the accident were severely burned when the fuel tank of their 1979 Chevrolet Malibu exploded in the crash.

Lawyers for the victims said they would accept the ruling by Superior Court Judge Ernest George Williams, and that they would agree to a further reduction of the punitive damages to $300 million if GM would agree to recall all models similar to the car involved in the crash.

Attorneys for GM rejected the whole package--both the judge's ruling and the plaintiffs' subsequent offer--saying they would appeal both the original verdict and the reduced amount announced by Williams.

The $4.9 billion was awarded by a Los Angeles jury on July 9 following a 10-week trial.

David Heilbron, who represented the company in the appeal, said GM was precluded from presenting key evidence during the trial by objections and motions from the plaintiffs.

Heilbron also said the jury was prejudiced by repeated personal attacks on GM and its defense team. Quoting from trial transcripts, Heilbron noted that GM's lawyers were derided as high-priced hired guns who consumed "cappuccino and designer muffins," and that GM was characterized as a soulless company that preferred spending money on lawyers to aiding crash victims.

"Personal attacks like that have no place in a court of law. They inflame the jury," he said.

GM has asserted that the Malibu's fuel tank design was safe and met federal standards.

Heilbron also rebutted what had been one of the plaintiffs' most compelling arguments: that two GM memos showed the company believed it would cost less to settle lawsuits than to make its cars safer. Heilbron asserted that those conclusions were taken out of context from two unrelated memos, neither of which addressed the car model involved in the accident.

As it had during the trial, GM emphasized that its cars are safe, saying the tragic accident was the fault of the drunk driver who struck the family.

Brian J. Panish, who represents the women and children, said the jury correctly blamed GM.

"Gas tanks don't discriminate between drunk or sober drivers," he said.

Panish said GM's appeal shows that the company "doesn't want to pay for the consequences of what they did." He defended the size of the jury award as necessary to force GM to change.

In a 10-page ruling, Williams called the jury's punitive damages fully warranted, but found the amount excessive. He wrote that the revised award is equivalent to 2% of GM's net worth and 10 times the compensatory damages.

The judge also said the jury was not biased by sympathy, passion or prejudice, and that GM had disregarded public safety to maximize its profits.

Panish repeated an offer he had made to GM earlier this week: The plaintiffs would forgo most of the punitive damages if the company would agree to recall for repairs cars similar to the one his clients were driving.

Heilbron said GM would not accept the offer because there is nothing wrong with the car model.

"If GM believed the cars were unsafe, it would have recalled them as it has so many others, without coercion," he said.

The fiery crash that led to the lawsuit occurred six years ago on Christmas Eve. Patricia Anderson, her four children and neighbor Jo Tigner were returning home from church when a drunk driver plowed into the Malibu's rear at 50 to 70 mph at a stoplight at 89th Place and Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.

In the car's back seat were children Tyshon, now 6; Alisha, 11; Kiontra, 15; and Kionna, 15. All were trapped and burned.

At a courthouse news conference Thursday, Anderson and daughter Alisha urged GM to issue a recall.

"We've learned to live and adjust to this," she said. "We're just hoping to get these cars off the road."

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