The Mississippi Court of Appeals has upheld a $3.5 million award in a suit alleging defective design and manufacture of a ball joint on a 1982 Chevrolet C10 pickup. The court rejected defense arguments that the sole cause of a serious accident was the driver's drunkenness.
The majority found sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that a defect in the pickup caused Jimmy Pegues, then 26, to lose control of the truck, leave the roadway at high speed and smash into a concrete culvert.
The court also ruled that a mechanic with 40 years' experience but no formal education beyond high school was qualified to testify that the pickup was unreasonably dangerous and that a castle nut had not been tightened to factory specifications during assembly.
Pegues' lawyer, Richard Phillips of Batesville, said, 'It was strictly a factual issue. Had the driver been sober, the same result would have occurred.'
Phillips also said testimony by a GM accident reconstruction expert 'was consistent with the plaintiff's case.'
GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said, 'We are currently reviewing our appellate options' and may ask the appeals court for a new hearing.
'GM believes that driver behavior and alcohol caused the crash, and that the ball joint broke as a result of the severe impact with the culvert,' he added.
The single-vehicle accident occurred in 1986. Pegues had borrowed the pickup from his brother, who had bought it used a year earlier. At the time, the truck had about 70,000 miles on the odometer. Pegues had a blood alcohol level of 0.226, more than twice the legal limit. He admitted he had been drinking with friends.
He sued General Motors in Panola County Circuit Court, where the jury found in his favor after a three-day trial.
The appeals court affirmed the verdict, saying the jury had an adequate basis for the award, including physical evidence, videotapes and testimony from Pegues and other witnesses.
'When facts are in dispute as they were in this case, the jury is given the power to resolve the disputes, and this jury did so in favor of Pegues,' Chief Judge Billy Bridges said.
In addition, the court said a mechanic who examined the wreckage at the request of Pegues' lawyer a few days after the crash was qualified to give his opinion that the castle nut had not been tightened properly, that the ball stud was loose before the accident and that the ball joint assembly was unreasonably dangerous.
EXPERT VS. EXPERT
The mechanic, who disassembled the wheel assembly, had received training from GM, had formerly worked for a GM dealership and had owned his own automotive business for 33 years.
'The jury obviously placed greater credibility on Pegues' expert as opposed to GM's expert,' the court said.
The court also rejected GM's argument that the award was excessive. It pointed to evidence of the severity of Pegues' injuries, including amputation of one leg, numerous operations, pain and suffering.
Phillips, Pegues' lawyer, said the jury had taken into consideration his client's intoxication when it calculated the amount of damages.
In a dissent, Judge Leslie South-wick said the physical evidence did not support Pegues' theory of what caused the accident.
'The loosening of the nut over the four years since the truck's manufacture was the essential evidence to prove GM's responsibility,' Southwick said.
'No proof was ever introduced that the nut had come loose. Obviously, the mere occurrence of a vehicular accident does not mean there was a defect for which the manufacturer was responsible. Plausible explanations for this accident arise immediately without any defect in the truck.'
Southwick said the mechanic should not have been allowed to give an opinion as an accident reconstruction expert because he lacked the necessary education and experience.
Southwick said, 'For a mechanic to testify, based on examining the wreckage, as to what caused the accident is to go well beyond what mechanics by experience and training are qualified to state.'