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Jury Finds GM Negligent in Fuel Tank Case

By Warren Brown
The Washington Post

An Atlanta jury Thursday ordered General Motors Corp. to pay $105.2 million to the parents of a Georgia teenager who died in the fiery crash of a GM pickup truck in 1989.

The jury found GM guilty of negligence and awarded $101 million in punitive damages and $4.2 million in compensatory damages to Thomas and Elaine Moseley, parents of Shannon Moseley, the 17-year-old killed in the accident.

The case, one of hundreds involving controversial side-mounted fuel tanks, is likely to reignite the volatile debate over product liability, with corporations denouncing the size of jury awards and consumer groups arguing that big damage awards make businesses accountable for their mistakes.

GM said it would appeal the decision of the Fulton County State Court jury. "We believe the verdict is incorrect," said GM spokesman Ed Lechtzin.

The GM truck involved in the crash is also the subject of a federal safety investigation. Consumer groups say that those cases involve at least 300 deaths, a number GM denies.

Georgia law gives the trial judge the option to raise or lower the jury's award. Fulton County Court Judge A.L. Thompson did not say Thursday if he would adjust the penalty, arrived at by the jury after 18 hours of deliberations over three days.

Moseley's 1985 GMC Sierra pickup was struck from the side by another vehicle operated by a drunken driver, according to court records.

During the month-long trial, lawyers for Moseley's parents argued that the design of "side-saddle" fuel tanks, placed outside the body chassis frames of the truck, made them likely to explode in side collisions. They also told the jurors that GM's own testing indicated that the side-saddle tanks were hazardous.

GM's attorneys argued that Moseley was hit by a drunken driver moving at 70 mph and that the company could not be expected to build a fuel system that could withstand that kind of impact.

James Butler Jr., the Moseleys' attorney, said in Atlanta Thursday that he sought a large punitive award to force GM to yield to consumer groups' calls for a recall of the affected trucks. The award is not a record for product liability cases.

Dual fuel tanks on the 1973-1987 GM full-size pickups were placed outside of the frame rails, the ladder-like structures that support the truck's cab and cargo box. Critics contend that this made the trucks more vulnerable to fire and explosions in side-impact collisions. Of the 8 million GM trucks designed in that manner, an estimated 4.7 million remain on the road, according to Department of Transportation figures.

GM in 1988 began installing a single fuel tank between the frame rails of its full-size pickups.

In all, GM has faced more than 100 lawsuits stemming from death-and-injury crashes involving the trucks, according to GM officials. Most of those cases were settled out of court. GM officials Thursday declined comment on the specific number and cost of those settlements.

However, the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group that has demanded a recall of the 1973-1987 GM pickups, contends that GM has settled at least 120 lawsuits involving fiery crashes of those trucks.

Some of those cases might now be reopened, in light of the Atlanta verdict, according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the center.

GM, whose business has been weak and which has been losing billions of dollars a year, took issue with the 12-member jury's verdict.

"We were not allowed to present certain evidence in the case," Lechtzin said. "We can prove that that truck" in which the young Moseley died "performed well for a truck that was struck at 70 miles per hour," Lechtzin said.

GM will present all of its data on the crash to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Lechtzin said. NHTSA last December began a formal investigation in the face of consumer complaints. If the government concludes that the trucks are defective, it can force GM to recall the vehicles -- a process that could cost the GM $1 billion, according to some industry estimates.