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Burn Victims Offer to Trade Cash for Recall

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Burn victims awarded a record $4.9 billion in a lawsuit against General Motors Corp. are willing to forgo most of the money if the auto maker agrees to conduct a recall, their lawyers said Wednesday.

The offer was made on behalf of two women and four children severely burned when the fuel tank of their 1979 Chevrolet Malibu exploded in a rear-end collision. It came shortly before a hearing scheduled for today on GM’s appeal of the jury award.

GM also has asked the judge to order a new trial.

Brian J. Panish, who represents the women and children, wrote in an Aug. 20 letter to GM Chairman John F. Smith Jr. that his clients would accept a $4.5-billion reduction in the punitive damage award if the company recalls for repairs car models similar to the one involved in his clients’ accident. Half of the remaining punitive damage award would go to the state of California for the care and treatment of burn victims, the letter stated.

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Lawyers for GM could not be reached for comment. In appeal papers, GM’s lawyers stated that the July 9 jury award was “the product of passion and prejudice,” not justified by evidence or law.

GM also has asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to set aside the verdict and decide the case in the company’s favor. In its appeal papers, GM protested that it was prevented during the trial from telling the jury that the other driver in the accident was drunk, and from presenting some of the Malibu’s favorable test results. The company has asked the judge to award no punitive damages.

The fiery crash occurred six years ago on Christmas Eve. Patricia Anderson, her four children and neighbor Jo Tigner were returning home from church when a drunk driver plowed into the Malibu’s rear at 50 to 70 mph at a stoplight at 89th Place and Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.

In the car’s back seat were children Tyshon, now 6, Alisha, 11, Kiontra, 15, and Kionna, 15. All were trapped and burned.

Panish said the only injuries from the impact were broken bones, but the women and children were burned when the fuel tank exploded and flames engulfed the passenger compartment.

Hospitals and burn centers were so crowded that night that the victims were taken to different hospitals. Two children ended up in a Fresno burn center, Anderson said.

After a 10-week trial, a Los Angeles jury awarded the crash victims $107 million to compensate them for pain and disfigurement. The jurors also awarded $4.8 billion in punitive damages against GM.

Shortly after the verdict, the crash survivors announced they would donate half the damages to a state fund for burn victims. That decision revived a debate over whether punitive damage awards, intended to punish and deter corporate wrongdoing, ought also to be used to benefit the public.

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Product liability lawyers have long lobbied for legislation to use punitive damage awards to fund the financially strapped state courts or otherwise serve the public.

In his letter to General Motors, Panish asks the company to agree to recall all vehicles with the same body type as the Malibu manufactured between 1978 and 1983 that are still on the road.

Panish said he has not heard from the company or its lawyers.

During the trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys claimed that GM risked between 300 and 500 lives a year by failing to install a safe fuel system. They presented a GM analysis that estimated it would cost the company $2.40 per car to settle lawsuits, but $8.59 per car to fix problems with the fuel delivery system.

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GM has asserted that the Malibu’s fuel tank design was safe and met federal standards.

Panish said he expects the jury verdict to stand because the car’s fuel tank caused the explosion and burns.

Legal experts, however, had predicted that the size of the jury award makes it likely to be greatly reduced upon appeal.


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