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Jury Awards Family $4.9B Against GM

July 9, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In what could be the largest personal injury verdict ever, a jury ordered General Motors Corp. Friday to pay a staggering $4.9 billion to six people who were severely burned when the fuel tank of their 1979 Chevrolet Malibu exploded in flames during a rear-end collision.

The verdict came after a 10-week Superior Court trial that focused on an internal GM study that the plaintiffs’ lawyers said demonstrated the carmaker had known for years its gas tanks were unsafe, but was unwilling to pay the cost of a recall.

Jurors awarded Patricia 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 during the 1993 accident.

``I just thank God that me and my kids survived,″ Ms. Anderson told reporters outside Central Civil West courthouse. ``I thank him for allowing me to be an example to the public to put an end to this.″

Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, which tracks large verdicts, called it ``the largest personal injury verdict in history.″

The enormous punitive award is unlikely to stand on appeal, Harrison added. 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.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers said 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 cost-benefit analysis of the gas tanks showed it would cost $2.20 per auto for settlements involving fatalities versus $8.59 per car to fix the problem beforehand.

``Without the risk of juries holding companies accountable for their reprehensible conduct, GM and other automobile manufacturers would have little reason to put passengers’ safety first,″ Brian Panish, lead attorney for the victims, said in a statement.

General Motors spokesman Terry Rhadigan said the verdict will be appealed.

The crash was the fault of a drunken driver, he said in a telephone interview.

``It was a very severe crash and we estimate the speed of the driver who struck this vehicle at 70 mph. Unfortunately (the victims) were sitting still at a stop light.″

Tigner and the Andersons were driving home from church services on Christmas Eve when the 1979 Malibu was struck from behind and exploded in flames in South Central Los Angeles.

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