A civil trial began Monday in the case of an Irvine man who is suing General Motors over injuries he said he received when his GMC pickup truck slipped out of gear and pinned him against his neighbor's car in front of his home.
Kenneth W. Wagner claims in his lawsuit that he was the victim of a defective automatic transmission that causes General Motors vehicles "to jump out of park."
Wagner, 53, suffered a crushed hip and other severe injuries in the accident, he testified Monday. He is seeking unspecified damages.
Lawyers for GM denied the allegations, telling an Orange County Superior Court jury that the company's transmissions are among "the safest on the road today."
"Our greatest sympathy goes out to Kenneth and (his wife) Sally Wagner for what happened," said Jack Trigg, a Denver lawyer representing the auto maker. "But it's unfair (for them) to blame GM for their problems."
The accident occurred on Dec. 17, 1988, as Wagner, a toolmaker, was getting ready to leave his house for work. Wagner said that when he started his GMC 1988 Sierra pickup, which he had bought the previous year, he heard a loud noise coming from the rear of the vehicle.
He left the engine running, shifted the truck into park and got out to investigate, he said.
But almost instantly after closing the driver's door, the pickup lurched backward.
Wagner, who weighs about 170 pounds, said he attempted to stop the 2 1/2-ton vehicle from crashing into his neighbor's Mercedes-Benz, which was parked across the street.
"I took off after it (and crouched down behind) like a football player to get everything into it," Wagner testified. "But it got me. . . . It pinned me, it crushed me. I didn't have time to escape."
Wagner said he was freed only after his wife jumped into the truck and drove it a few feet forward. The couple still owns the pickup.
During opening arguments, Wagner's lawyer, Tom Anderson of Indio, told the jury that it was not uncommon for GM vehicles to "jump out of park."
Anderson said GM officials have acknowledged in depositions that they knew as early as 1978 that some drivers do not shift completely into park and "with some disturbance" the shifting lever slips out of park.
"There were injuries and deaths caused by this phenomena," Anderson told the jury, adding that GM issued warnings about the "faulty" transmissions in 1988.
It would be easy for GM to correct this "design defect," but the company has never done so, Anderson said.
Anderson also said his client realized that trying to stop the pickup from backing up "wasn't a smart thing to do, but he was trapped."
Trigg, GM"s lawyer, said the accident was caused by Wagner's "driving errors." Wagner, he said, failed to set the parking brake, switch off the ignition, and failed to push the gear lever completely into park.
"If he had done only one of those things, this accident would not have happened," Trigg said. "We're not asking for perfection, but we have the right to ask for one (safety measure)."
The errors were compounded when Wagner attempted to stop the 5,000-pound pickup, Trigg said.
The trial, which is expected to last six weeks, will be held in two phases before Judge Robert Gardner. In the first phase, the jury will be asked to determine if GM was liable for the accident. If GM is found liable, the jury would have to determine the amount of damage the Wagners suffered.