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Jury orders Chrysler to pay $262 million in death of boy

Chrysler Corp. officials, calling a $262.5 million judgment against the com pany "outrageously large," promised to appeal a lawsuit that blamed a faulty latch for the death of a 6-year-old boy.The family of Sergio Jimenez II sued the company, saying a defective rear latch on a Chrysler minivan caused the boy to be thrown from the vehicle in a 1994 accident.

Wednesday's award, the largest ever against the automaker, included $12.5 million in actual damages and $250 million in punitive damages. The family did not ask for a specific dollar amount.

Sergio Jimenez says he broke into tears when he heard the federal jury's decision.

"I can't even talk. I didn't expect anything this big," said Jimenez, a mason with three other children.

The lawsuit said the boy was riding in the back seat of his family's 1985 Dodge Caravan when it was hit in the rear by a slow-moving vehicle.

The van spun and rolled over, throwing Sergio out when the latch on the rear liftgate failed, the lawsuit said. He died of a fractured skull.

Chrysler plans to appeal, spokesman Mike Aberlich said. The company contends the van ran a red light and the boy, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown out a side window, Aberlich said.

"We believe that the outrageously large punitive damage award shows that the jury was unduly influenced by the highly emotional nature of the circumstances of the accident," he said.

The family denies that the van ran a red light, and the trial judge refused to allow evidence about the traffic signal, said the family's attorney, David Dwares.

"Chrysler knew about the defect and covered up the defect while at the same time advertising its minivans to American families as safe," Dwares said.

The jury said Chrysler was negligent in the design and testing of the minivan.

At least 37 passengers were killed in accidents in which they were ejected when the rear liftgates opened on Chrysler Town and Country, Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Voyager minivans sold from 1984 through 1995, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records.

Auto-safety advocates criticized the agency for allowing Chrysler to repair the minivans under a less-strict "service campaign" rather than an official recall.