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Judge Upholds $82M GE Verdict

September 4, 2002

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UNION SPRINGS, Ala. (AP) _ A judge upheld an $82 million verdict against General Motors for a collision that left a child with permanent brain damage and that raised questions about the automaker’s design changes.

Bullock County Circuit Judge Burt Smithart said the $82 million was reasonable because ``GM made a conscious and deliberate decision to reduce safety in the Delta 88′s and put occupants at risk.″

GM spokesman Jay Cooney said Wednesday the company would appeal.

``This was just the first step in the process,″ he said.

The case stemmed from a head-on collision on Dec. 10, 1999, near Smut Eye, 40 miles southeast of Montgomery.

Jeffrey Jernigan, then 12, was in the front seat of a 1993 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with his seat belt on when the passenger compartment of the car collapsed on him, causing him to lose part of his brain, said plaintiff’s lawyer Jere Beasley.

The boy’s father, Wilbert Jernigan, sued GM, contending the car was defective and dangerous due to design changes made by GM.

In May, a Bullock County jury awarded Jeffrey Jernigan $20 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages and his father $2 million in compensatory damages. The punitive damages were automatically cut to $60 million because Alabama law, in most cases, limits punitive damages to three times the compensatory damages.

GM maintains the trial was laced with bias and should have been moved out of the rural county because the boy’s father is the county circuit clerk, who handles court documents.

GM asked the judge to order a new trial or further reduce the verdict, but the judge refused in an order signed Friday.

``The defendant’s conduct is sufficiently reprehensible to support a significant award of punitive damages,″ Smithart wrote.

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