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GM Victims To Donate Half of Award

July 13, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Six people badly burned in a car crash say they want to turn their $4.9 billion judgment against General Motors Corp. into a windfall for other burn victims and the hospitals that treat them.

Patricia Anderson said Monday that she, her four children and family friend Jo Tigner want nearly half of the award to be used to build new hospital burn centers or expand those already operating.

In an interview, Ms. Anderson the decision was based on her anguished struggle to get help for her children after they were burned, along with her and Ms. Tigner, in a fiery crash on Christmas Eve 1993.

A jury on Friday awarded the family $107 million in compensatory damages and $4.8 billion in punitive damages _ the largest amount ever awarded in a defective product case, legal experts have said.

Half of the punitive damages would be donated to the state of California to help build new burn centers or expand those already in operation, Ms. Anderson said.

``I hope this never happens to anyone else, but we want to help others get better medical care if it does,″ Ms. Anderson said.

Attorneys in the case also have agreed to donate the portion of their fees that would come from punitive damages.

Experts expect courts to reduce the award.

If it were to stand, the verdict could have a serious impact on General Motors. The amount exceeds GM’s profits of $3.1 billion in all of 1998, a year in which earnings were hurt by strikes. In 1997, the company earned $6.3 billion.

``Anytime you look at a $5 billion damage award you have to see if the award is reduced and how long will the appeal take,″ said Steve Garrity, an analyst with Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.

Ms. Anderson, Ms. Tigner and the children were on their way to a candy store after attending a Christmas Eve church service when their 1979 Chevrolet Malibu was rearended and burst into flames.

Burn centers were already crowded on the busy holiday night, so the six victims were taken to five different hospitals.

But doctors at four of the hospitals would not treat the children without Ms. Anderson’s signature, she said in a telephone interview Monday.

With her head swollen and her hands wrapped mummy-like in bandages, she left the emergency room less than two hours after arriving and traveled to each of the four hospitals to sign forms.

Ms. Anderson said she has no complaint about the quality of care her friend and family received, but she doesn’t want other families to face a similar ordeal.

``It was awful. No one was able to sign a release for my kids to be treated. I had to check myself out. I went home to get the (insurance) cards and had to go to the hospitals to sign for the kids,″ she said. ``I didn’t really think about it. I just did it.″

Ms. Anderson said she also wants some of the money to go to the Ronald McDonald Foundation. She stayed at the Ronald McDonald House near a Fresno hospital where two of her children were transferred.

The four children face additional surgery and other treatments. Alisha, 11, has trouble moving one arm because of scar tissue around the elbow, and Ty-Shon, 6, has limited movement of his ankle and foot because of scarring.

When times are rough, she tells her children they are beautiful despite their scars.

Faith helps them get by, she said. ``Just prayer, basically, just getting strength from the Lord.″

During the 10-week trial, attorneys argued that GM knew its gasoline tanks were unsafe, but believed it was cheaper to settle claims than recall the cars for safety upgrades.

General Motors contends the car was safe, and the accident was the fault of a drunken driver who hit the car while going 70 mph.

It is not uncommon for recipients of large awards to give some of the money away, said Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA. In a 1997 Texas case, the family of a man killed in an oil-well accident agreed to forego $30 million in punitive damages if the company, Esenjay Petroleum Corp., would install safer equipment. The company agreed.

``It’s a way of saving face by saying you’ll give up something you’re probably not going to get anyway,″ he said.

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