The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered a new trial in a product liability suit involving a 1991 Oldsmobile Toronado, saying the judge gave the wrong instructions to the jury about the occupants' failure to wear seat belts.
The court, which called the first trial 'unfair,' also sharply criticized General Motors for hiring as a 'jury consultant' the postal worker who had delivered most of the summonses to potential jurors.
GM declined to discuss the decision.
The crashworthiness case stemmed from a 1992 incident in which a tractor-trailer ran a stop sign and collided with the Toronado driven by Joseph Hunter. Hunter, who had some alcohol in his blood but below the legal limit, died. His three passengers, one in the front and two in the rear, were injured.
After the accident, the owner and driver of the truck settled for more than $1 million.
The defect claims against GM centered on the design of the front seat backs, according to Dennis Sweet III of Jackson, the lawyer for Hunter's estate.
'The seat back collapsed and broke. A pin came out. The seat backs were not designed to withstand the force.' As a result, he said, the driver's body was 'basically severed' when the collapsing seat back, propelled by the weight of the back-seat passengers, was forced against the steering wheel.
The case went to trial in Clai-borne County Circuit Court, where two witnesses testified that none of the occupants was belted, though one passenger maintained she had been wearing her seat belt. The jury found in favor of GM.
The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the plaintiffs are entitled to another trial. It said Judge J. Brad Pigott, who presided over the trial, deliberately gave the jurors the wrong instructions by saying the occupants' alleged failure to wear seat belts could be evidence of their own negligence.
'The (Mississippi) legislature, along with the legislatures of many other states, has determined as a policy matter that seat belt non-usage should not be considered negligence,' the court said.
At the new trial, the jury must be told that GM can be held liable for crashworthiness defects even if those defects did not cause or contribute to the initial crash, the court added.
GM also came under fire for hiring the local mail carrier to assist the defense in jury selection. He had delivered the majority of the summonses to prospective jurors and personally knew many of them.
Sweet, representing Hunter's estate, called GM's actions 'obviously wrong,' saying the mail carrier 'had no special expertise and he was hired all of a sudden as a jury expert. He knows who's on the jury. He knows the people.'
The Supreme Court found no evidence that GM's motive was to gain confidential advance information about the makeup of the jury pool but said, 'Even if no improper conduct actually occurred, as GM vehemently asserts, the hiring of the very same mailman who delivers the summonses to the jury brings a taint of unfairness, real or perceived.'
As for the plaintiffs' claim that GM wrongfully withheld at least 85 boxes of documents during pretrial discovery, the court said the plaintiffs should have a chance to offer the documents as evidence at the new trial. Those documents had been disclosed in unrelated cases involving allegedly defective seat backs, and GM claimed they were not relevant to the Mississippi lawsuit.
Sweet said he believes the case should be reassigned to a different judge for the new trial.