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$14 Million Verdict Against General Motors for Failure to Warn

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GM hit with $14M verdict for failure to warn

The National Law Journal

February 7, 2000

CASE TYPE: Products Liability
CASE: Golonka v. General Motors Corp.,

No. CV98-1 1010 (Super. Ct., Maricopa Co., Ariz.)

PLAINTIFFS’ ATTORNEYS: Robert W. Boatman and Adam A. Studnicki, of Phoenix’s Gallagher & Kennedy P.A.

DEFENSE ATTORNEYS: James R. Condo and Andrew R. Hataby, of Phoenix’s Snell & Wilmer L.L.P

JURY VERDICT: $17 million, reduced to $14.2 million

ON APRIL 17, 1997, Ruth Golonka, then 67, stopped her 1987 General Motors Sierra pickup truck in Scottsdale, Ariz., to load some lawn chairs into the bed of the truck. Ms. Golonka shifted the transmission into park but didn’t turn the motor off, said her attorney Robert W. Boatman. As she loaded the chairs into the bed, the truck’s transmission shifted into reverse and lurched backward, he said. The pickup ran over Ms. Golonka and killed her.

Her husband and adult children sued General Motors Corp., charging that the Sierra’s transmission was negligently designed and that GM could have used a safer design but had “decided it would cost too much money,” alleged plaintiffs’ attorney Adam A. Studnicki.

The plaintiffs also charged GM with failing to warn drivers of the danger of leaving motors idling while in park, he said. GM, Mr. Boatman said, has received “more than 2,000 reports of similar incidents,” leading to more than 100 lawsuits. After the Golonka accident, he said, “Scottsdale police tested this vehicle six times, and every time it shifted into reverse when they dropped the tailgate.”

GM denied any defects in the transmission or any failure to warn. The company contended that Ms. Golonka was at fault for the accident for failing to shut off the motor and for failing to completely engage the transmission into park.

On Dec. 17, a Phoenix jury found no design defect but did find a failure to warn. The jury awarded the Golonkas $17 million, including $10 million in punitives. On the jury’s finding that Ruth Golonka was 40% at fault, the judgment was reduced to $14.2 million.

Reprinted with permission of The National Law Journal.

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