LOS ANGELES -- In the biggest product-liability award in U.S. history, a jury ordered General Motors Corp. to pay $4.9 billion Friday to six people severely burned when their Chevrolet Malibu exploded in flames in a rear-end collision.
The plaintiffs hailed the verdict as a huge victory for consumers, while GM said it would appeal and legal experts doubted the award would stand on appeal."I just thank God that me and my kids survived," said plaintiff Patricia Anderson, 31. "I thank him for allowing me to be an example to the public to put an end to this."
The huge verdict came after a 10-week state court trial on the defective-products lawsuit that focused on internal GM documents about fuel tanks in its various models.
Although the documents do not specifically mention the 1979 Malibu, plaintiffs' lawyers said they demonstrated that GM had known for years that its gas tanks were unsafe but found it cheaper to settle lawsuits than to pay for a recall.
The jury awarded Anderson, her four children and family friend Jo Tigner $107 million in compensatory damages and $4.8 billion in punitive damages for injuries they suffered in the 1993 accident.
"This crash was not GM's fault, and we are disappointed the conduct of this trial did not let the jury fairly evaluate the claims," GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said.
Rhadigan said the Malibu's fuel system was safe and said the crash was the fault of a drunken driver. He said the Malibu was sitting still at a stop light when it was hit by a car going 70 mph. The plaintiffs' attorneys estimated that car was going 50 mph.
Coleman Thorton, foreman of the jury, said the panel based its decision on the amount GM spent on advertising during the years that it built cars with gas tanks that he called dangerous.
"We figured that if they had no regard for the lives of people in their cars, they should be held liable for it," he said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the gas tank was placed too close to the rear bumper and better designs would have placed it over the axle or incorporated a shield. They said GM's own study showed that the cost of settling lawsuits arising from accidents in which victims were fatally burned was $2.40 per car. Plaintiffs' attorney Brian Panish said the problem could have been fixed for cheap.
"GM had numerous failures in their crash tests but chose to leave the tank where it was because changing it would have cost $8.59," he said.
Tanks were mounted in unsafe positions, 11 inches from the rear bumper, in the Chevrolet Malibu and El Camino, the Pontiac Grand Am and Oldsmobile Cutlass from 1979 to 1983, he said. The current Malibu is a vastly different design from the 1979 model.
GM was aware that its study, performed in 1973 by GM engineer E.C. Ivey, could cause problems if it became public, or if Ivey were called to testify, as he did in this case.
"Obviously Ivey is not an individual whom we would ever, in any conceivable situation, want to be identified to the plaintiffs in (an accident) case," said a 1981 Oldsmobile memo that Panish distributed to reporters. "The documents he generated are undoubtedly some of the potentially most harmful and most damaging were they ever to be produced."
Tigner and the Andersons were driving to a store to buy candy after attending church services on Christmas Eve when their 1979 Malibu was struck from behind and exploded in flames in South Central Los Angeles.
"I just remember getting out of the church and going to the store and falling asleep," said Anderson's daughter, Alisha Parker, now 11. "It's been tough."
Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, said the GM award is the largest product-liability and the largest personal-injury verdict in the nation's history.
But the enormous punitive award is unlikely to stand on appeal, Harrison said. Even with awards in the tens of millions of dollars, it is rare for a plaintiff to actually get anything close to the jury's verdict, he said.