Appealing to the court of public opinion as they try to protect the largest personal injury award in history, the survivors of a fiery crash will donate half the $4.9 billion in damages won Friday from General Motors Corp. to the care and treatment of other burn victims, their attorneys said Monday.
Plaintiff Patricia Anderson said it is the right thing to do. In a telephone interview, Anderson said a portion of the staggering punitive damage award is to ensure that other people do not experience the horrors she did on Christmas Eve six years ago, when her 1979 Chevrolet Malibu was rear-ended and exploded in flames.
"It's not so much about the money," she said. "That can't take away what my family has been through."
The hospitals and burn centers in Los Angeles were so crowded that night, Anderson said, that she and her four children were taken to different hospitals. Two of the children wound up in a burn center in Fresno, she said.
Doctors wouldn't treat the children without her signature, she said. As a result, Anderson checked out of the hospital, her head and hands swaddled in bandages, to retrieve her insurance cards and sign the forms.
"It was awful," Anderson said softly.
Legal experts said the announcement was also intended to deflect any criticism comparing the record-setting jury award to a lottery windfall for the plaintiffs--two women and four children from South-Central Los Angeles.
"It was a clever political move," said Gregory C. Keating, a law professor at the University of Southern California's law school. "It blunts the perception that this is an enormous windfall for the plaintiffs."
On Friday, a jury that found that GM knew its gas tank design was defective but chose to settle lawsuits rather than fix the defect awarded $4.8 billion in punitive damages on top of $107 million compensating the women and children for their pain, suffering and disfigurement.
The record-setting award is considered unlikely to hold up under an appeal. Legal experts agree that it is almost certain to be greatly reduced, either by the trial judge or an appeals court.
The move to donate the money to the state to set up a public trust for burn victims could make toppling the verdict much more difficult. In effect, it puts a judge or panel of judges in the unpalatable position of taking away money from future burn victims, legal experts said.
A GM spokesman said the auto maker is not commenting. "These folks have been through a tremendous amount," spokesman Terry Rhadigan said. "It was a horrible tragedy."
Beyond the issues of public relations, the huge award has revived a long-standing debate about whether punitive damage awards, intended to punish and deter corporate wrongdoing, also can be used to carry out public good deeds.
In the GM case, the plaintiffs' lawyers have volunteered from their own pockets what they have been unable to accomplish in the Legislature.
The lawyers for the plaintiffs are among the top product liability litigators in California, and they long have lobbied for legislation to use punitive damage awards to fund the financially strapped state courts or otherwise serve the public.
"We don't have a bill right now," said Mark P. Robinson Jr., attorney for one of the burn victims. "We had two attempts at bills--one to give a quarter of the punitive damages to some public good, and another was for one-third. We were shot down twice.
"We'll see how people react to this," he said. "If this is something the public likes, maybe it's something we can push next year."
A handful of states already have such legislation on the books. But public opinion and the political climate in Sacramento during the 1990s were not receptive.
Consumer lawyers believe that, under the Gray Davis administration, that climate is beginning to change.
"The assessment of punitive damages is for the public good. It makes companies change their conduct," said Bruce Broillet, a partner in the Santa Monica law firm that represents Anderson's children.
"We have pushed for legislation in Sacramento to take a portion of the punitive damage award that is actually collected, and have it go to some public benefit like operating the courts," Broillet said. "In this case, the [clients] voluntarily decided that they would like to see some of the money go to help burn victims."
Attorneys for the burn victims pointed out that the jury's award amounted to the equivalent of two weeks' revenue for GM, said Carl Douglas, who represented Anderson.
The plaintiffs' attorneys are among the leadership of a 4,000-member organization called Consumer Attorneys of California. They have lobbied hard to change laws they say protect business interests at the expense of consumers. The group is chaired this year Robinson, a Newport Beach lawyer who represented Jo Tigner, 47, Anderson's neighbor and a front-seat passenger in the accident.
Robinson was the lead lawyer in a famous and strikingly similar 1978 case involving an exploding gas tank of a Ford Pinto. At the time, a record $125 million in punitive damages was awarded, but later reduced to $3.5 million.
The consumer attorneys say their desire to convert punitive damages to public works long had been thwarted by corporate interests.
"We need to ask why they are against using moneys paid out in punitive damages for the public good," said Brian Panish, the lead trial lawyer in the GM case.
The consumer attorneys group is seeking to raise the $250,000 limit on damages awarded for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases. It is pushing for legislation to allow consumers to sue their health maintenance organizations or a negligent party's insurance company for acting in bad faith. And it is seeking to put an end to secret settlements that might prevent the public from learning about dangerous products. The issues are supported by many Democrats in Sacramento.