Analysis: Cost of Life Issue in GM Suit Lost on Price of a Part

By Micheal M. Weinstein N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, August 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Analysis: Cost of Life Issue in GM Suit Lost on Price of a Part


Micheal M. Weinstein N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


"We're just like numbers," one juror said last month after voting to order General Motors to pay $4.9 billion to six people severely burned when the fuel tank of their 1979 Chevrolet Malibu exploded after a drunken driver ran into them. The award is an understandably human reaction to evidence introduced during the trial that purported to show that GM had a policy of foregoing safety features that cost shockingly little, perhaps no more than $2.40 a car.

Yet the award is outrageously high, and will probably be set aside, or at least greatly reduced, when, as expected, GM appeals. It is perhaps the largest award ever in a personal-injury lawsuit, imposing $4.8 billion of punitive damages on a manufacturer whose fuel-tank design satisfied federal safety requirements.

The jury clearly demanded that car manufacturers value human life beyond a few dollars and cents. Brian J. Panish, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said that GM made a business decision to fight lawsuits from fuel-fed fires rather than to "fix something that wouldn't have cost them much at all." In a recent interview, he said, "When you make a conscious decision to allow people to burn, you have to pay."

But the verdict leaves unanswered what exactly General Motors did that was reprehensible. The jury may have choked on the notion that car manufacturers trade off benefits and costs when designing safety features. But so do government regulators operating on behalf of consumers. Indeed, economists say, there is no escape from ghoulish calculation. The simple fact is that consumers do not want to buy the safest car possible because they do not want to pay the costs. General Motors may have taken its calculations to an indecent extreme, placing too little value on human life. But the jury could not have logically drawn that conclusion from the evidence presented in court. The numbers they saw -- the cost of various safety options per car -- reveal nothing about the sense or nonsense of GM's decision.

Put aside the question of whether the jury's verdict proves that the nation's tort system resembles a lottery. Put aside questions about this particular trial -- whether, as GM contends, the judge prevented it from presenting exculpatory evidence. The immediate issue is whether jurors were right to rebel against evidence that purported to show that General Motors made business decisions that placed profits before safety.

The fuel tank on the 1979 Malibu fulfilled federal regulations, according to tests conducted by GM. Beyond that, how safe should it have made the car? Statements that manufacturers are morally obligated to put costs and profits aside in safety decisions amount to little more than blather. There is only one way to make a car safe. Build a 500-ton fortress on wheels, drive at one mile an hour on highways whose lanes are built, at taxpayers expense, one mile wide. …

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