"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
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