General Motors Corp. will appeal a $150 million award to an Alabama man who claimed faulty door latches contributed to injuries suffered in a 1991 accident that left him paralyzed.
A Lowndes County, Ala., jury on Monday awarded Alex Hardy $50 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages. Hardy had claimed GM knowingly sold Chevrolet Blazers with defective door latches that opened in wrecks like the one he had.Also Monday, in a separate case in Salt Lake City, a federal jury awarded an accident victim more than $1 million in damages against GM, finding fault with the Blazer's seat belts, roof and windshield.
Lynn Misener was ejected from the 1977 Blazer in a 1991 accident and left with permanent brain injuries.
The 12-member jury found GM was 15 percent negligent while Daniel Manson, the vehicle's driver, who also suffered a brain injury, was 85 percent responsible for the woman's impairment.
GM attorney Vincent Galvin Jr. said he did not know whether GM would appeal the verdict.
In the Alabama case, GM denies the allegations, arguing Hardy was at fault because he had been drinking and fell asleep when his Blazer flipped over. Witnesses for GM testified during trial that Hardy flew through a window because he was not wearing a seat belt.
The company maintains the "Type III" door latch is safe and meets all federal safety standards, said GM general counsel Thomas A. Gottshalk.
"Today's decision is the crowning example of a state tort system gone berserk," he said.
Hardy, 37, was driving his 1987 Blazer through White Hall, a rural community about 25 miles west of Montgomery, when the accident happened about 3 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1991.
In his lawsuit, Hardy claimed the Blazer's rear axle broke, freeing the right wheel assembly and sending the vehicle into a roll. He said the door then came open, throwing him 30 to 40 feet through the air.
Hardy's lawyers based their argument in part on an analysis of the latch, which they said showed scratches consistent with parts of the latch scraping across one another.
"This jury's verdict reflects the awful fact that GM knew Americans would be killed and injured . . . because of a substandard door latch which GM has known for at least 14 years was defective and failing in wrecks," Hardy's lawyer, Jim Butler, said in a statement.
Butler said some 30 million vehicles equipped with the latches are still in use.
Hardy's lawyers also cited internal GM documents, including a 1982 study estimating such latches could fail some 18,000 times a year. GM lawyer Charles Fairfax said the study was "pure speculation."
GM said the rate of side-door ejections from its vehicles involved in fatal accidents was .77 per 100 occupants.
GM experts testified that the door on Hardy's Blazer was relatively undamaged, indicating that it had not come open during the accident as he contended. They also said their analysis of the wrecked Blazer showed the axle broke during the wreck and was not the cause of it.
The "Type III" latch was installed on some 40 million GM vehicles beginning in 1978. A version incorporating a support plate was installed on some 1987 models, but not on Hardy's Blazer.
Butler said GM settled latch-failure claims until 1994. That was the last year the federal government could order a mandatory recall order on the latches.
He said GM did not want to spend the estimated $916 million needed to replace all of the latches, instead opting for a "quiet recall" in which dealers were told to replace the latch without telling customers.
Fairfax said Butler's claims were untrue and said GM stands by the latch.