Appeals court backs GM in bumper defect suit

Bout over bumper

At issue: 1983 Silverado rear bumper defect claim

Winner: GM, as appeals court upholds jury verdict in its favor

A federal appeals panel has upheld a jury verdict in favor of General Motors in a lawsuit claiming that the rear bumper of a 1983 Chevrolet Silverado was defective.

The panel rejected a challenge to GM's expert witnesses and to testimony that the plaintiff smelled of alcohol at the crash scene.

In October 1995, motorcyclist Columbus Miles was traveling at 55 mph on Highway 142 in Louisiana when he spotted the stalled Silverado, the appeals court said. He did not apply his brakes but instead attempted to swerve around the pickup. When his effort failed, he rear-ended it, irreparably damaging his left leg, which was later amputated below the knee.

His product liability lawsuit alleged in part that the bumper was negligently designed and unreasonably dangerous. He contended that the bumper's sharp end, which curved around and extended beyond the side of the pickup, acted like a large hook upon impact with his leg.

GM denied any defect and countered that Miles had contributed to the accident by failing to take proper evasive action and by misperceiving the scene. The jury sided with GM.

So did the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

The court turned down Miles' challenge to expert testimony by two of GM's defense witnesses, a mechanical engineer and a specialist in biomechanics and accident reconstruction. It noted, for example, that one of those witnesses had been involved in automotive design and testing for more than 30 years, including the design and testing of bumpers for production vehicles.

Although Miles could cross-examine the experts about their knowledge and methodology, it was up to the jury to decide how much weight to give their testimony.

GM spokesman Jay Cooney called the challenge to the experts' credentials and methodology as "plain old silly." He said, "It's no surprise that our accident reconstructionist differs from Mr. Miles' reconstructionist."

On a second issue, the court said the jury was properly allowed to hear testimony that a police officer on the scene, a nurse and the Silverado's driver all smelled alcohol on Miles. At trial, he admitted drinking less than two beers before the accident, and a toxicology screen at the hospital found no evidence of alcohol in his bloodstream.

His lawyer, Richard Holiman of Little Rock, Ark., said that under Arkansas law, that testimony should have been excluded because "there was not one shred of evidence of any effects of alcohol on Mr. Miles' ability to operate the motorcycle."

But, Cooney said, Arkansas law allows defendants to introduce evidence of the odor of alcohol in cases where the negligence of the parties is compared to determine whose fault is greater. He called it disappointing to manufacturers, though, that "this is not the law in all states."

The plaintiff, Holiman said, will not appeal further.

You can reach Eric Freedman at

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