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GM Verdict in Defective Sierra Pickup Truck Lawsuit

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Both Sides Declare Partial Victories In GM Park-To-Reverse Verdict

Lawyers Weekly USA
February 7, 2000

An Arizona jury recently awarded $14.2 million to the family of a 67-year-old woman who was run over and killed by her own pickup truck when she stopped to load a chair onto the vehicle.

According to the plaintiffs, the woman put her 1987 GMC Sierra half-ton pickup in park and left it idling while she walked around back to put in the chair. As she lowered the tailgate, the automatic transmission slipped into reverse and the truck backed over her. The woman died at the scene.

The primary dispute at trial was whether the woman, Ruth Golonka, left the transmission in park or in a position between park and reverse.

In a rather perplexing verdict, the jury ruled that there was no defect in the truck transmission, but that GM was negligent for failing to warn customers that the transmission could spontaneously slip into reverse. The jury awarded $7 million in compensatory damages and another $10 million in litigation damages for failing to provide adequate warnings.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Adam Studnicki says that he learned through post-trial interviews that there was “a lot of compromising” in the jury room.

The compensatory award was reduced to $4.2 million based on the jury’s finding that Golonka was partially to blame for her fatal accident.

The case is now in post-trial motions. Depending upon the outcome of those motions, GM is likely to appeal the verdict, according to defense attorney James Condo. But he noted that the jury’s rejection of the design defect claim was a significant victory for GM.

Studnicki calls the verdict a victory for Golonka’s family and for consumers in general. The verdict puts auto manufacturers on notice that they must abide by the highest consumer safety standards, he says.

Studnicki says he doesn’t know yet whether the Dec. 17 verdict will lead to similar claims against GM.

Since the verdict, Studnicki has received a call from a woman whose husband was found dead underneath his GM truck three years ago. Until she saw TV coverage of the Golonka verdict, the woman did not know what had killed her husband, Studnicki says. She even wondered whether he had been murdered.

But after hearing about Golonka’s accident, the woman believes her husband’s truck, like Golonka’s must have slipped into reverse and run over him, Studnicki says. The woman is deciding whether to sue GM.

Condo describes the Golonka case as an “isolated incident” for GM. He does not expect a flood of similar lawsuits against his client, especially since the jury found there was no transmission design defect.

Complaints about GM vehicles – and other manufacturers’ vehicles – shifting from park to reverse are not a new phenomenon.

In preparation for trial, the plaintiffs’ team sifted through several thousand GM complaint forms and other documents. They whittled this pile of records down to more than 400 complaints and lawsuits involving circumstances similar enough to Golonka’s accident to be admitted into evidence.

Although most of these complaints did not result in lawsuits, the plaintiffs’ team uncovered 30 deaths and more than 100 injuries that did lead to litigation. In a case in Hawaii, a man received $20 million after his GM vehicle backed over him, rendering him a quadriplegic, Studnicki says.

Studnicki and counsel Robert Boatman introduced this evidence to show that GM has known about the transmission problem for nearly 30 years but has chosen not to fix it, Studnicki explains.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys culled much of the historical information from data that GM filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the late 1970s.

The agency was investigating Ford automobiles for transmissions that slipped from park into reverse. In the process, it also ordered GM and Chrysler to provide data on any park-to-reverse issues with their vehicles.

Among the NHTSA records was a 1974 letter from a GM vehicle owner and shareholder. Studnicki says the woman wrote the two-page letter directly to the GM president. She explained that her GM car had shifted itself from park into reverse, and when she took the car to her mechanic, he told her he had seen the same problem in at least four other GM vehicles.

The woman wrote that she believed the problem was a design defect and should be fixed before someone was killed, according to Studnicki.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also called 11 GM employees to testify regarding the transmission design process and the auto manufacturer’s response to reported park-to-reverse problems. Studnicki says their testimony revealed that GM knew about the problem but did not redesign the transmission to prevent it from recurring.

Ron Elwell, a disgruntled former GM engineer, also testified that he was told in the 1980s not to spend any more money than it took to meet federal safety standards. According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Elwell, who worked at GM for 27 years, became disenchanted with the automaker after learning that the company had conducted a cost-benefit analysis on saving human lives verses fixing safety defects.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers also called expert witnesses who testified that the transmission should be redesigned and that the owner’s manual for the Sierra pickup truck contained inadequate warnings about park-to-reverse dangers.

GM also failed to send a letter to owners warning them of the park-to-reverse dangers, as Ford did in the late 1970s, Studnicki adds.

Defense experts reached the opposite conclusions. They testified that the transmission was not defective, that there were adequate safety features and that the vehicle’s owner’s manual included adequate warnings.

Condo says he and co-counsel, Andrew Halaby, also got the plaintiffs’ experts to acknowledge that Golonka could have prevented her accident if she had taken any one of the safety measures described in the owner’s manual. These measures included turning off the ignition, putting on the parking brake and putting the car in park rather than in a position between park and reverse.

The defense attorneys argued that the rarity of park-to-reverse accidents in GM vehicles supported their contention that the transmission design was not flawed.

Considering the number of times the owner of a vehicle shifts into park and reverse on any given day, the problem would have occurred much more frequently in the Sierra if a design defect were to blame, Condo says.

Likewise, considering the number of transmissions of this design that are on the road, the incidence of park-to-reverse accidents would be much higher in the case of a design defect, he says.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys acknowledge that accidents like Golonka’s are rare. But they argue that does not mean the GM transmission problem is rare. In most cases, the problem causes property damage but no personal injuries. And in the vast majority of incidents, Studnicki adds, no one is standing behind the vehicle when it shifts into reverse.

The jury sided with the defense on the design defect claim.

As for the negligence and failure to warn claims, the defense argued that Golonka was at fault.

“She didn’t need to leave the engine running in order to get out of the truck and go around and load a chair onto the back of the truck,” Condo says.

The jury found this defense argument only partially convincing, as it divided blame between Golonka and GM.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys: Adam A. Studnicki and Robert W. Boatman, Gallagher & Kennedy, Phoenix, Ariz.

Defendant’s attorneys: James R. Condo and Andrew F. Halaby, Snell & Wilmer, Phoenix, Ariz.

The case: Maricopa County Superior Court, Arizona, Eugene Golonka v. General Motors Corporation; Case no. CV98-11010; Judge Daniel A. Barker.

Reprinted with permission of Lawyers Weekly USA.

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