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X-Car Trial Set To Conclude

February 23, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Roughly two years, 4,000 exhibits, and 15,000 transcript pages after it began, a trial is about to end on the government’s charges that General Motors sold 1.1 million cars knowing that they had unsafe brakes.

At issue is whether GM sold its 1980 X-cars - including the Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega and Pontiac Phoenix - when it was aware that their rear brakes could lock up too quickly during stops, causing cars to spin out of control

About 700,000-800,000 of the 6-year-old cars are still on the roads.

Lawyers for GM and the Justice Department are due in federal court Tuesday for final arguments.

The non-jury trial before U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson hasn’t been in session since last May, but lawyers for both sides have been taking depositions, crafting thousand-page summaries of evidence and even writing up proposed final orders for the judge.

“It’s hard to believe we are still here, involved in this case,” says GM counsel James Durkin.

The closing arguments give each side a chance to offer Jackson their best parting shots.

“The challenge is to capsulize this very complex engineering controversy into a two-hour presentation,” Durking said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims the automaker’s two recalls of some X-cars were inadequate to correct the problem, and wants them all called back again, and GM fined $4 million.

But much more is actually at stake, says Lawrence Maloney, a special assistant U.S. attorney who will present the government’s final arguments.

“This case isn’t just about the X-car,” said Maloney. “Its about what the law should be, and how (defect) enforcement actions are going to proceed in the future.

The government wants the case to serve as a reminder to all automakers of their duty to take the initative in recalling unsafe cars; GM hoes to be exonerated of charges it sold dangerous cars and wouldn’t fix them.

Moloney, who left government service almost a year ago to join a Minneapolis law firm, has been retained by the Justice Department to deliver the government’s final arguments.

He and Durkin agree that a key question for Jackson to decide is how much weight should be given to motorists’ complaints about their cars.

When the trial began in March 1984, there had been 3,563 complaints about the brakes on 1980 X-cars, involving reports of 330 injuries or fatalities and 1,108 property-damage accidents.

“Consumers in overwhelming numbers have reported over and over and over again that they have been having unexpected incidents of loss of control and spinning in the X-car,” said Moloney. “The government starts with the reports of the consumers, which we credit, we believe. ...We found confirmation of what the consumers were saying by looking at GM’s own internal documents.”

Durkin says driver reports of skidding incidents don’t serve as evidence of a defect, and that complaint rates on the X-car were artificially stimulated by unfair negative publicity.

Complaint rates jumped after NHTSA released a video tape of a skidding X- car to the television networks in January 1983, but the government claims that’s reasonable, because motorists learned that their X-car problems weren’t unique and found out how to report them.

Says Durkin: “In general, complaints are not an indicator of the brake balance of a car. Complaint rates are particularly meaningless in view of the effect that the government had on X-car complaint rates by the release of the video tape.”

Durkin says GM has proven that the X-car is safe through detailed test results and technical presentations on brake balance, and through an analysis of accident rates that shows the cars compare favorably with other vehicles.

Moloney says GM’s sophisticated engineering presentation was an attempt at “revisionist history” - trying to explain away evidence that it knew from the start that the cars were unsafe.

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