Elderly driver Constance Peters sped in reverse out of her driveway in her Oldsmobile Cutlass and severely injured herself. Plaintiffs’ attorneys blamed General Motors, alleging sudden acceleration (Apr. 19, 2004, Jun. 6, 2000) through a defective cruise control (that magically ceased running the engine when the driver was knocked unconscious). More sophisticated plaintiffs’ attorneys have long since recognized that defective cruise control theories are so much nonsense (there is no reason for a “defect” to be six times more likely to affect elderly drivers) and try to sue for failure to warn of pedal misapplication or failure to recall and install shift-interlock safety protection in older cars, but some cases proceed on the older theory; this one resulted in an $80 million verdict. The plaintiffs went too far, however, and shoveled into evidence 139 cases of previous “sudden acceleration” that they attempted to use to show that the cruise control was defectively accelerating out of control—even though the cars in those incidents did not have cruise control! The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed and granted a new trial, though plaintiffs will get to present their bogus case again. (Randall Peters v. General Motors Corp. (Mo. App. W.D. Jan. 17, 2006); Tresa Baldas, “Acceleration Case Draws $80M Jury Verdict”, National law Journal, Jan. 7, 2003).
Ohio workers who got their jobs through a welfare program are suing the state for improper compensation. Example: As part of his welfare benefits, Bruce Smith stripped floors in Youngstown when his knee snapped as he bent to pick up a bucket of water. His attorneys argue he should have received worker’s compensation based on his pre-welfare salary, not on his food stamp allowance, according to a state supreme court decision. The state says the ruling “applied to death benefits, not regular workers comp claims.”
The welfare program is a tiny part of overall claims. The workers compensation bureau has paid about $6 million for 3,200 successful welfare worker claims to date, compared to about $2 billion last year alone in regular claims, Hicks said.
The Equal Justice Foundation says the number of potential claims is much higher. In court filings accompanying the lawsuit, foundation attorneys say the figure is over 5,000, citing workers’ compensation bureau e-mails.
Smith, 59, went on welfare after he was laid off from his job making bumpers for a General Motors parts supplier. He was injured in April 2003 on a job he received in Mahoning County as a condition of getting $139 in food stamps weekly.
Associated Press, “Lawsuit Alleges Workers Hurt On Welfare Jobs Cheated,” Jan 4.
Another example of how personal injury attorneys and the “Center for Auto Safety” actually care very little about auto safety: In 2001, Louis Stockell, driving his pickup at 70 mph, twice the speed limit, rear-ended a Chrysler minivan. Physics being what they are, the front passenger seat in the van collapsed backwards and the passenger’s head struck and fatally injured 8-month old Joshua Flax. The rest of the family walked away from the horrific accident. Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Butler argued that Chrysler, which already designed its seats above federal standards, should be punished for not making the seats stronger — never mind that a stronger and stiffer seat would result in more injuries from other kinds of crashes because it wouldn’t absorb any energy from the crash. (Rear-end collisions are responsible for only 3% of auto fatalities.) Apparently car companies are expected to anticipate which type of crash a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly. The $105M verdict includes $98M in punitives, a number that will almost certainly be reduced, but the entire verdict is inappropriate. “It is unfairly punishing DaimlerChrysler for a reasonable engineering decision that resulted in a product that met all federal standards,” DaimlerChrysler spokesman Jason Vines said. (Rob Johnson, “Jury awards $105.5 M in baby’s death”, The Tennesseean, Nov. 24; Matt Gouras, AP, Nov. 24; “DaimlerChrysler Is Told to Pay $98 Mln in Van Crash”, Bloomberg, Nov. 23; Sheila Burke, “Chrysler being sued over baby’s van death”, The Tennesseean, Nov. 4). More coverage: Dec. 21.
After less than a day of deliberations, jurors rejected a lawsuit claiming that General Motors was responsible for the death of former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, who was speeding on ice without a seat belt at the time of his fatal crash four years ago (see Nov. 28, 2000). The ruling was a setback to attorney Michael Piuze (Jun. 19, 2001, Sept. 24, 2001, Oct. 4-6, 2002), who argued the case for the plaintiffs. (“GM Wins In Derrick Thomas Wrongful Death Trial”, KansasCityChannel.com, Aug. 17).
The family, as we noted in our earlier item on the case, had also sued local ambulance service Emergency Providers Inc. and Liberty Hospital, both of which tried to save Thomas after the accident. The ambulance company settled, as did a Chevrolet dealership. “There was no dispute that the Suburban’s roof was far stronger than federal standards, but the family contended that those standards were insufficient and needed to be changed. … Almost whispering to the jury, [Piuze] asked them for from $75 million to more than $100 million in damages, saying he did not want to put an upper limit on it.” We’ll bet he didn’t (Joe Lambe, San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 17).
Speaking of crashing into a crowd of bystanders: “Eleven lawsuits were filed Tuesday on behalf of two people who were killed and nine who were injured when a car plowed through a crowded farmers market last summer.” Named as defendants in the suit by Brian J. Panish, Timothy J. Wheeler and Geoffrey S. Wells are the City of Santa Monica; “the company that oversees the market, a farmers association, Los Angeles County’s agricultural commissioner and the state of California”; and General Motors. Oh, yes, and the actual driver, 88-year-old George Russell Weller; almost forgot him. (“Lawsuits filed in Santa Monica farmers market car crash that killed 10”, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, Jul. 13; “Greene Broillet Files 11 Lawsuits Against the City of Santa Monica for Wrongful Deaths and Personal Injuries Arising out of the July 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Tragedy”, press release, Jul. 13). In all, ten people were killed and 63 injured in the accident last July. (& see Sept. 15).
Fifteen years after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that the explanation for supposed “sudden acceleration” in cars was that the drivers were mistakenly pressing the accelerator rather than the brake, trial lawyers continue to sue automakers, and now NHTSA has agreed to open an investigation into claims of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus models. While an earlier wave of suits tended to blame cruise control malfunctions, the new favorite culprit is electronic throttle control systems. In lawsuits over the accidents, the car’s brakes, which can ordinarily bring a car to a stop even when its throttle is fully open, will typically be said to have mysteriously failed as the same time as the acceleration defect was manifesting itself, although nothing will be found physically wrong with the brakes afterward.
“For more than a decade, decisions usually favored car companies and blamed drivers in unintended acceleration cases, but some recent trials and court decisions reversed that. Ford Motor and General Motors each recently lost a high-profile case. … A Missouri jury last year ordered GM to pay Constance Peters and her husband $80 million for the crash of her 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass, which accelerated 120 feet in reverse and into a tree while she was backing up. They blamed faulty cruise control. GM is appealing.” And: “The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in 2002 reinstated a $1.1 million judgment against Ford in the crash of a 1991 Ford Aerostar. Jurors had found that the crash was caused partly by a ‘negligently designed’ cruise control system.” (Jayne O’Donnell and David Kiley, “Technology puts unintended acceleration back in spotlight”, USA Today/Detroit News, Apr. 13)(via Reason Hit and Run). For more on the issue, see Jun. 6, 2000.
“Reasonable people do not believe that Ford or General Motors should be sued when a drunken driver speeds into and kills a pedestrian. They understand that the manufacturer should not be faulted merely because its product is used improperly and illegally. It is obviously the driver who needs to be punished.” The Senate is about to take up a bill, supported by a majority in both Houses, which would protect gun manufacturers from being sued over criminal misuse of their products. Lawmakers who sympathize with the gun-control-through-litigation campaign will try to attach spoiler amendments in hopes of derailing the bill; they shouldn’t be allowed to succeed. (“Gun legislation” (editorial), Hill News, Feb. 25). For our past commentaries on the topic, see Oct. 9 and Apr. 4-6, 2003 and our gun litigation page generally.
The Alabama Supreme Court reversed an $82 million verdict against General Motors–not because it was ludicrous to hold GM responsible (much less responsible for $60 million in punitive damages) because a passenger was injured while riding in an Oldsmobile that hit another automobile head on at 50 miles per hour and a combined speed of almost 100 mph, but because the trial judge had refused to strike five jurors who were related to an attorney at the law firm for the plaintiff. The case will be retried. (Philip Rawls, AP, Dec. 12; “Brain injury in crash costs General Motors”, OnWheels, May 20, 2002) (via Bashman).
From Lowell, Mass. comes word that a jury has rejected a suit asking that Joseph Albert be awarded millions of dollars for drinking himself into a coma. Attorney Peter J. Nicosia of Tyngsboro asked $11 million in a “dramshop liability” suit against Gus & Paul’s Tavern for serving an undetermined number of beers over two hours to Albert, who was found by police later that night with a blood-alcohol level at a startling .48. Complicating Nicosia’s case was a deposition from a boon companion of Albert’s saying that the plaintiff had been drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey after leaving the tavern. “I played that off to be basically an untrue story and basically a red herring,” said attorney Nicosia of the Jack Daniels. “The bottle was never found; no one ever saw him drink it.” The jury evidently wasn’t persuaded. (Jeanne Greeley, “Tragic Dram-Shop Case Just Had Too Many Holes”, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Jun. 30). In another of last year’s big defense wins in the Bay State, a jury decided it wasn’t General Motors’ fault that a mother had left her Chevy Astro van running with the keys in the ignition and occupied by her infant with her 4-year-old sister; the pre-schooler climbed into the front and shifted the transmission, causing the van to roll into a pond. (Kelly Winget, “Tot rolls van into pond”, Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, Jul. 18, 2000).
General Motors has settled on undisclosed terms the suit in which a Los Angeles jury awarded $4.9 billion, later knocked down to a mere $1.2 billion, to six people injured when their Chevy Malibu was rear-ended by a drunk driver; the plaintiff’s lawyers had charged the Malibu with defective design, although federal statistics show it to have a safety record well above average (see Dec. 16, 1999 and links from there). And contrary to reports (including ours) that trial lawyers were managing to kill off car-lease reform in Rhode Island, major automakers said they would remain in the Ocean State leasing market after Gov. Don Carcieri on Jul. 7 signed legislation which for one year caps at $300,000 the liability of car lessors for accidents that their lessees get into (see Jul. 14). The change leaves New York as the only state with unlimited vicarious liability for lessors. (“Business: National Briefs”, Detroit News, Jul. 25).