COURT FINDS GENERAL MOTORS NEGLIGENT IN DEATH OF ARIZONA WOMAN
GM Ordered to Pay $17 Million for Deadly Safety Defect
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – December 17, 1999. In a decision that struck a resounding blow on behalf of consumer safety interests, an Arizona jury handed down a $17 million judgment against General Motors Corporation on behalf of the family of Ruth Golonka, a Scottsdale woman who died nearly three years ago when the transmission of her GM truck slipped out of “park” into “reverse” and backed over her.
The award of $10 million in punitive damages and $7 million in actual damages sends a strong message to General Motors, said Adam Studnicki, a Phoenix lawyer who represented the family of Ruth Golonka. “The judgment sends a message to General Motors and all automakers that the United States justice system demands the highest standards of vehicle safety for consumers.”
“The jury told General Motors that it is unacceptable to value corporate profits more than human life,” said Studnicki. “This is a major victory for the Golonka family and for American consumers.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Ruth Golonka was killed on April 17, 1997, when she stopped by the side of the road only a block from her home to retrieve some wooden lawn chairs a neighbor had set out for disposal. Driving her 1987 GMC Sierra pick-up truck at the time, Golonka pulled over to the side of the road and shifted the transmission into “park,” then exited the truck, leaving the vehicle idling. As she loaded the chairs into the bed of the truck, the truck’s transmission suddenly and unexpectedly shifted into “reverse” and lurched backward, crushing Mrs. Golonka beneath its wheels and entangling her body in the drive train. Her body was so mangled by the drive train that a police investigator testified in the trial that he told the priest who was called to the scene he could not go to the body to administer last rites.
Police investigative reports submitted in the trial indicated that, when the police officer at the scene put the gear shift into “park” several times, it jumped back into the “reverse” position.
After receiving no satisfactory answers from GM regarding the incident, the Golonka family retained Studnicki and attorney Robert W. Boatman, who learned, in the course of their investigation, that such “park-to-reverse” incidents not only were widespread in the transmissions of GM vehicles, but that GM had long known about the incidents and that the big automaker had gone to great lengths to avoid correcting the problem in its vehicles. Boatman and Studnicki filed suit against General Motors Corporation on behalf of the Golonka family, charging that the giant automaker knowingly installed a faulty automatic transmission in the truck that caused Mrs. Golonka’s death.
Documents presented as evidence in the trial by Studnicki and Boatman showed that GM has received more than 2,000 reports of similar “park-to-reverse” incidents and that more than 200 of those cases involved injuries or deaths. Evidence also showed that other car manufacturers have fixed vehicles to correct similar problems or have sent warning letters to vehicle owners cautioning them always to engage the emergency brake when leaving vehicles idling in “park.” Evidence showed that General Motors, however, consistently blamed drivers for not knowing that they should use their emergency brakes, denied that there was a problem with the transmissions in GM vehicles, and stonewalled against all efforts to force the big automaker to redesign its transmissions. Although forced to actively defend more than 140 lawsuits stemming from “park-to-reverse” incidents in which judgments as high as $20,000,000 were rendered against GM, the automaker steadfastly resisted making design adjustments that, according to expert testimony, would have cost the company “zero dollars.”
Former General Motors mechanical engineer Ron Elwell, who testified in more than 80 cases on behalf of GM and its safety standards during his 27-plus years with the company, gave perhaps the most damaging testimony in Golonka v. General Motors. Elwell testified that he was told by a high-ranking GM official in the early 1980s that engineers should stop spending company dollars to make its vehicles safer than federal government requirements.
“(A supervisor said) that the engineering community was not to spend any more money than it took to meet the federal standards, whatever they were,” Elwell told the Court. “It just dramatically changed our jobs,” he said. “That’s not what safety is all about.”
Elwell also said that he became disillusioned in the mid-80s after crash test results were hidden from him and after learning of an internal GM document that showed the automaker had performed a cost/benefit analysis on human lives. According to Elwell, the document estimated that it would cost GM an average of $200,000 per person killed in lawsuits involving another safety defect that the company was experiencing at that time, as opposed to several million dollars’ cost involved in correcting the design problem. The document reflected GM’s decision to pursue the cheaper option of letting people die.
Witnesses also testified about two other internal GM “smoking gun” documents in which GM compared the cost of design changes to the cost of lawsuits.
Evidently, the Maricopa County jury found GM’s disregard for consumer safety and its preference for profit over human life equally as abhorrent as did Elwell. After deliberating a day and a half, the jury found General Motors Corporation grossly negligent in Ruth Golonka’s death and ordered GM to pay her survivors $17 million.
“My family and I are gratified by the jury’s decision,” said Eugene Golonka, on hearing the verdict. “No amount of money can bring back my wife, but maybe a judgment of this size finally will force General Motors to correct the problems with their transmissions and prevent some other family from having to suffer the same kind of loss.”
“Today, David brought down Goliath,” said Adam Studnicki. “He couldn’t have done that, though, unless Goliath-or GM, in this case-was culpable. The jury, in its wisdom, saw through GM’s weak arguments and found that the auto giant was more interested in the dollar than in its customers’ safety.”