A California appeals court panel has overturned a $7.5 million judgment against General Motors and ordered a new trial in a Blazer rollover case.
The court found the verdict in favor of Robbie Lambert to be internally inconsistent: On one hand, the jury said the 1985 Blazer that Lambert drove was not defectively designed. On the other hand, the jury ruled GM was negligent in designing the vehicle and concluded the manufacturer's negligence caused Lambert's disabling injuries.
Lambert's lawyer, Michael Puize of Los Angeles, said he will petition the California Supreme Court to review the case because appellate panels recently issued conflicting opinions on the same legal issue in separate automobile defect suits. 'We like to have uniform laws, and that's usually a signal for the Supreme Court to step in and decide the case,' he said.
The incident happened in 1990 when Lambert was driving a friend's Blazer at 65 to 70 mph along an interstate highway, at 1: 30 a.m., the appeals court said. The Blazer passed a truck, whose driver saw Lambert slumped over the wheel, apparently asleep, then saw the Blazer veer off the highway and roll over.
Lambert was left a quadriplegic. His passenger was not injured seriously.
A product liability suit in San Bernardino County Superior Court alleged that defects in the roof and seat belt design had caused the injuries. At the end of a six-week trial, a jury assessed damages of $15 million but cut the award in half to reflect Lambert's 50 percent share of the fault.
The California Court of Appeal reversed the verdict and granted GM another trial.
'If the design of the Blazer was not defective, GM could not be deemed negligent,' the unanimous three-member panel ruled. 'The jury could not have concluded that GM negligently designed the Blazer and at the same time conclude that it was not defective.'
The court also rejected Lambert's argument that the jury could have decided GM had been negligent in ways other than the vehicle design.
'The record demonstrates that the only evidence presented by the plaintiff involved a design defect. The extensive expert testimony focused entirely on the design of the roof structure and the seat belt.'
GM's lawyer, Lucien Van Hulle of Palm Springs, Calif., said the decision clarifies California's product liability law. 'The case holds you cannot have a nondefective product that is negligently designed,' he said.
Puize, Lambert's lawyer, said that if the case must go to trial again, 'We will do better (in the size of the verdict) than the first time.'