A Georgia appeals court on Monday overturned a $105-million jury verdict against General Motors Corp., bolstering the auto maker’s efforts to resist a safety recall of its pickup trucks with side-saddle fuel tanks.
The ruling by a three-judge panel sitting in Atlanta comes 17 months after a Fulton County State Court jury found GM liable for the death of 17-year-old Shannon Moseley in a fiery 1989 crash of his ’85 GMC pickup.
The case has drawn widespread attention because of the size of the jury award--including $101 million in punitive damages--to Moseley’s parents and demands by safety advocates for a recall of the 4.7 million pickups still on the road.
GM, which was represented in the appeal by former U.S. Atty. Gen. Griffin Bell, says the vehicles are safe and refuses to recall them.
The appeals court ruled that the trial judge had “poisoned” the case by allowing the plaintiffs to make reference to 120 other lawsuits involving GM pickups. No evidence linking those cases to Moseley was presented to the jury.
“This is a substantial victory for us,” GM spokesman Ed Lechtzin said.
The Moseleys could not be reached at their home in Snellville, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. Their attorney, James Butler, was also unavailable for comment.
The case could be appealed to the full nine-member state appeals court or to the Georgia and U.S. Supreme courts. If those appeals fail, it will be sent back to the state court for a retrial.
Safety advocates have charged that the safety defect in the GM pickups is among the most egregious ever uncovered. The Center for Auto Safety estimates that 300 deaths have been caused by fires from erupting fuel tanks.
The decision comes amid growing speculation in Washington that the Transportation Department may drop its investigation of GM’s 1973-1987 C/K pickups. Sources have indicated that Justice Department attorneys believe that GM would fight a forced recall and probably win in court.
Last summer, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration asked GM to voluntarily recall the vehicles, which critics allege are prone to explosions because the fuel tanks are located outside the pickup’s frame.
GM, however, rejected the request and instead offered $1,000 coupons to owners toward the purchase of a new vehicle. The company strongly argues the vehicles are as safe as its competitors’ trucks and safer than most other vehicles on the road. It also points out that the vehicles met federal crash-safety standards in effect when built.
The case has languished in the last year as the NHTSA has operated without an administrator for more than a year. In the Moseley case, GM argued that he was killed on impact when his truck was struck by a drunken driver. But Butler said the youth survived the crash only to die when the fuel tank ruptured and the gasoline ignited.
References to others who allegedly were killed or injured because of pickup truck fuel-tank explosions were made throughout the trial. In a dramatic closing plea to the Fulton County State Court jury, Butler, clutching a charred fuel tank, warned that “more will die” if GM was not punished.
In an issue that could prove important if the case is retried, the court said the jury’s award of punitive damages was not excessive. The court noted GM’s size and the fact that so many of the trucks are in use.