General Motors remains liable for a 60 percent share of an $8.2 million award plus the same proportion of a $2.4 million penalty in a suit by the estates of three family members who died in a post-collision fuel-fed fire in their 1995 Chevrolet Lumina.
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania rejected GM's arguments against a jury verdict that found the fuel system's safety check valve was defectively designed and the filler pipe hose assembly was manufactured defectively.
The court also upheld the liability for the rest of the award against a tractor-truck driver, who rear-ended the Lumina at about 40 mph, and his company. The driver was sentenced to prison for vehicular manslaughter.
GM is considering further appeals, spokeswoman Brenda Rios says.
Douglas and Connie Harsh and their infant son survived the immediate impact but died in the car from burns and smoke inhalation from the April 1995 fire. Witnesses heard screaming after the crash, and the emergency team that removed their charred remains found the parents holding hands.
GM denied any defect.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Jaime Jackson of Atlee Hall & Brookhart in Lancaster, Pa., says the estates reached a confidential pretrial settlement with another defendant, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
After a month-long trial, the jury awarded $8.2 million in compensatory damages for negligence but refused the request for punitive damages. Another $2.4 million was tacked on because the defendants had failed to make a valid settlement offer within a year after litigation began.
On appeal, GM unsuccessfully challenged the jury 's determination that held it strictly liable for the deaths. In strict liability, a plaintiff need not show fault; he or she must prove only a product defect. In an opinion written by Judge Dan Pellegrini, the Commonwealth Court rejected GM's argument.
Other issues on appeal included the trial judge's rulings that disallowed evidence of GM's crash test results and compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards but allowed the jury to see the estates' computerized animations that depicted the Lumina bursting into flames. GM also contested rulings about evidence and jury instructions.
You can e-mail Eric Freedman at [email protected]