Posts Tagged ‘sudden acceleration’

Do new studies portend litigation rationality on vaccines?

Orac, whose blog has done much to rebut vaccine conspiracy theories published in the mainstream media, expresses hope (via Childs) that a new study showing the likelihood of autism increases with the age of the father will add to the weight of evidence showing that autism is genetic, rather than caused by vaccines.

Of course, Orac is presuming that litigation-driven theories and for-hire-expert testimony have any basis in rationality or science. We have known for nearly twenty years that “sudden acceleration” is much more likely to occur to elderly, new, or very short drivers, and demonstrating conclusively that it is purely a function of pedal misapplication, yet we still see lawsuits (and verdicts!) today alleging that (apparently age-discriminating) magnetic interference with defective cruise control causes accidents (e.g., Aug. 7).

$18 million “sudden acceleration” verdict in South Carolina

It’s been nearly two decades since NHTSA refuted the concept of sudden acceleration, yet state courts are still permitting junk science experts to put forward irreproducable theories of electromagnetic interference taking over cruise control. Seventeen-year-old Sonya Thomas claims EMI caused her automobile to take off, causing her to lose control and kill a passenger and paralyze herself. Of course, rather than turn the cruise control off or hit the brakes, Thomas unbuckled her seatbelt and reached under the seat to unstick a gas pedal, which is more consistent with her jamming the gas pedal under an upside-down floormat than anything else. Never mind: though belted passengers were uninjured in the 70-80 mph crash, the South Carolina state jury awarded $18 million to the plaintiffs, and the American automobile industry died a little bit more. (Paul Alongi and Jess Davis, “Cruise control led to crash, jury says”, Greenville News, Aug. 7; Julie Howle, “Jury begins deliberations in crash trial”, Greenville News, Aug. 6; Julie Howle, “Witness disputes seat-belt usage in crash”, Greenville News, Aug. 5; Julie Howle, “Jurors in lawsuit see hard evidence in 1999 rollover”, Greenville News, Jul. 25; “Jury Hears Claims Of Ford Explorer Problems”, WYFF4, Jul. 20).

(March 2010 update: Reversed.)

$80M Missouri “sudden acceleration” verdict reversed

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).

Newspaper purchase costs juror over $30k

Gerardo N. Lara was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder in the stabbing of his wife, Marissa Lara. But the defense attorney saw one of the jurors buying a newspaper during the trial; at a mistrial hearing, the juror, Lindy L. Heaster, denied the purchase, but a videotape from the 7-11 proved otherwise, and the judge threw out the verdict. Heaster’s been held in contempt for violating the court’s orders to disregard press coverage and lying to the court, and could be socked with the costs of the trial.

While the juror certainly committed contempt and (from the news reports) seems to have committed perjury, I wonder if the mistrial remedy for the defendant is a bit extreme. The April 15 Washington Post Heaster bought had no coverage of the trial. And if Heaster read the April 15 Potomac News coverage of the trial, the only thing she learned was that an argument the defense wanted to make that the judge refused to tell the jury. Should the law recognize the potential for harmless error here? I’ve turned on comments; please keep discussion civil and limited to this topic. (Tara Young, “Indiscretion Gets Juror In Trouble”, Washington Post, Apr. 22; Maria Hegstad, “Judge declares mistrial in Lara case”, Potomac News, Apr. 21; Tara Young, “N.Va. Murder Conviction Erased by Juror Buying Newspaper”, Potomac News, Apr. 21; Rob Seal, “Lara found guilty”, Potomac News, Apr. 16). More discussion: Apr. 25 post.

Read On…

Batch of reader letters

We’ve posted another four letters from our backed-up pipeline on our letters page. Among the topics this time: what skillful malpractice defense lawyers talk about at trial, and what they don’t; sudden acceleration litigation; what should you do with a class action settlement check, if you don’t approve of the lawsuit?; and the curiously uncontroversial powers of Eliot Spitzer.

Sudden acceleration: litigation springs eternal

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.

About auto litigation (1999)

Archived entries before July 2003 can be found here, where the following brief essay originally appeared:

The finest achievement of American trial lawyers, to hear many of them tell it, has been their success in identifying unsafe models of automobile and forcing them off the road. The Ford Pinto case is invariably put forth as an example of how a big company knowingly designed and sold an obviously defective vehicle for which it was properly chastised by means of large jury awards. (Ralph Nader has promised to put a Pinto exhibit in his proposed Museum of American Tort Law.) Almost as well known has been litigation over claims of “sudden acceleration” in Audi 5000s, in which the German-made sedans were said to dart inexplicably out of control even though their owners were pressing the brake pedal with all their might.

To be sure, the Audi case presents an inconvenient complication, namely that the cars weren’t inexplicably accelerating — a series of conclusive government investigations found that the drivers were in fact mistakenly pressing the accelerator thinking they were on the brake. Likewise with the controversy over “sidesaddle” gas tanks on some GM full-size pickup trucks, said to be inexcusably unsafe in side-impact collisions but revealed in real-world crash statistics to be considerably safer than the average vehicle on the road (which did not keep lawyers from winning at least one huge verdict against them).

Trial lawyers offer up the auto safety issue to public audiences and juries as a simple, satisfying morality play of wicked automakers versus helpless victims. It is seldom clear, however, what they would consider to be adequate safety performance. Every mass maker of vehicles for the U.S. market — even Volvo, even Lexus, even BMW — has faced lawsuits in American courts alleging that its designs are impermissibly unsafe. The explanation is not that all models are defectively designed, but that drivers of all models get into accidents — and when crash victims’ injuries are serious and the other driver underinsured, lawyers will often stretch quite a ways to find some theory or other that allows them to pull in the maker of the car as a defendant. Many such theories are available because auto design is a complex subject, because the circumstances in which accidents take place are often factually muddled and open to dispute, and because the design of all vehicles, even the full-size Mercedes, involves trade-offs between safety vs. expense, safety vs. convenience/enjoyment, and safety vs. safety (protecting passengers from front impacts versus protecting them from side impacts, for instance). But some trial lawyers seem to be willing to get up in front of a jury and downplay even well-known, longstanding safety trade-offs in vehicle design — such as the greater rollover hazard that drivers face in convertibles and in off-road vehicles with high ground clearance — in favor of the theory of a sinister conspiracy in executive suites to kill customers.


The Audi case is written up at length in Chapter 4 of Peter Huber’s magisterial Galileo’s Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom (Basic Books, 1991), which is not online but is available through the bookstore. It is also discussed more briefly in his article “Junk Science in the Courtroom“. A short but vivid account appears in P. J. O’Rourke’s humorous account of the workings of government, Parliament of Whores (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991, pp. 86-87). The notorious “60 Minutes” show attacking the Audi comes in for a drubbing in our editor’s 1993 National Review expose of dubious crash journalism, “It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC“, adapted and reprinted in The Rule of Lawyers, and is the subject of a valuable retrospective in the August 1998 Brill’s Content by Greg Farrell (“Lynched: Lurching Into Reverse”), which in turn provoked a fairly hysterical response from CBS executives.

In 1993, “Dateline NBC” was caught in one of the great television scandals of all time: filming a supposed “crash test” of a GM full-size pickup being hit and bursting into flames without telling viewers that the truck had been rigged with hidden incendiary devices and tampered with in various other ways to make a fire more likely. But in fact TV newsmagazines had been running highly dubious “crash test” footage for many years; the main difference was that in this case NBC happened to get caught. In the Dateline case, as in many previous instances of fakery, the network was guided and advised by crash “experts” who happened simultaneously to be working for the plaintiff’s lawyers in suits over the defects being alleged in the TV coverage. Not by coincidence, NBC aired its bogus report not long before an Atlanta jury was to hear a major liability suit against GM, the target of the show; they proceeded to vote an award of $105 million.’s editor weighed into the controversy with pieces on the truck’s safety record (“‘The Most Dangerous Vehicle on the Road’“, Wall Street Journal, February 9, 1993), on the media’s reliance on plaintiff’s experts (“Exposing the ‘Experts’ Behind the Sexy Exposes“, Washington Post, February 28, 1993), and on the earlier history of questionable crash-test journalism at American networks (“It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC“, National Review, June 21, 1993).

On the Ford Pinto case, the best resource is unfortunately not online, but is well worth a trip to the local law library now online: the late Gary Schwartz’s 1991 Rutgers Law Review article “The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case” (43 Rutgers L. Rev. 1013-1068). Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA and prominent expert on product liability, showed that (as our editor summed up his findings in 1993): “everyone’s received ideas about the fabled ‘smoking gun’ memo are false. The actual memo did not pertain to Pintos, or even Ford products, but to American cars in general; it dealt with rollovers, not rear-end collisions; it did not contemplate the matter of tort liability at all, let alone accept it as cheaper than a design change; it assigned a value to human life because federal regulators, for whose eyes it was meant, themselves employed that concept in their deliberations; and the value it used was one that they, the regulators, had set forth in documents. In retrospect, Schwartz writes, the Pinto’s safety record appears to have been very typical of its time and class.”

In July 1999, rekindling a public debate about the irrationality of jury decisions in product liability cases, two California juries returned enormous verdicts within three days of each other: a Los Angeles jury voted $5 billion against GM for the allegedly defective design of its 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, and a jury in rural Ceres, Cal. returned a $290 million verdict against Ford in a case against its Bronco truck. The cases are discussed on in the entries for July 10, August 27 and September 10 (GM) and August 24 (Ford). In the General Motors case, plaintiffs successfully prevented GM from telling the jury that the accident had been caused by a drunk driver who had been convicted of a felony and imprisoned over the accident; or that the Malibu’s real-life crash statistics showed it to be safer than the average car of its era; or that the alternative crash design proffered by plaintiffs raised safety concerns of its own and was not widely used by other makers. In the Ford case, a long series of emotionally manipulative trial tactics by the plaintiff’s lawyers paid off when one juror told her colleagues that the reason they had to vote for liability had come to her in a dream.

In April 2000, after a two-month trial, the tables were turned when a federal jury found that the magazine Consumer Reports, frequently aligned with the trial-lawyer side in legislative fights, had made numerous false statements in its October 1996 cover story alleging a dangerous propensity to roll over in the 1995-96 Isuzu Trooper sport utility vehicle, but declined to award the Japanese carmaker any cash damages. The jury found that CR’s “testing” had put the vehicle through unnatural steering maneuvers which, contrary to the magazine’s claims, were not the same as those to which competitors’ vehicles had been subjected. Jury foreman Don Sylvia said the trial had left many jurors feeling that the magazine had conducted itself arrogantly, and that eight of ten jurors wanted to award Isuzu as much as $25 million, but couldn’t see their way to overcoming the high threshold to proving “malice”. The jury found eight statements in the article false, but in only one of these did it determine CR to be knowingly or recklessly in error, which was when it said: “Isuzu … should never have allowed these vehicles on the road.” However, it ruled that statement not to have damaged the company, despite a sharp drop in Trooper sales from which the vehicle later recovered.