GM Ordered to Pay $14.2 Million in Park-to-Reverse Fatality
An Arizona jury ordered GM to pay $14.2 million to the family of a Scottsdale woman who was crushed to death in 1997 when her 1987 GMC Sierra pickup truck rolled back over her.
Ruth Golonka, 67, had stopped to pick up some chairs that were being discarded by a neighbor. She pulled to the side of the road, shifted the vehicle’s transmission into “park” and left it idling. When she went got out and went behind her vehicle to load the chairs, it unexpectedly shifted into reverse, causing the truck to suddenly roll backward crushing her under the wheels and entangling her body in the drive train. The police investigative report indicated that the truck had jumped back into the “reverse” position several times when the police officer at the scene attempted to shift it into park.
Mrs. Golonka’s family sued GM claiming that her death was the result of a defective transmission that caused the truck to suddenly shift into reverse and back over her. Her attorneys claimed that GM had known of a defect in the trucks’ transmission and the transmission systems of other vehicles for more than 25 years. Prior to trial, they had uncovered more than 2,000 other park-to-reverse incidents, at least 200 of which involved serious injuries and deaths. After a pre-trial evidentiary hearing, the court ruled that 400 of those incidents were so substantially similar they could be admitted into evidence.
Golonka’s attorneys claim that although GM has defended more than 140 lawsuits related to park-to-reverse incidents in which judgments as high as $20,000,000 were entered against the automaker, it continued to resist inexpensive design changes. Ron Elwell, a former GM engineer who had testified on behalf of GM many times during the 27 years he was with the company, testified in the Golonka case that he was told by a high-ranking GM official in the early 1980s that engineers should stop spending company dollars to makes its vehicles safer than federal government requirements. There was other testimony about two internal GM documents wherein GM compared the cost of design changes to the cost of lawsuits.
The Maricopa County Superior Court jury found GM grossly negligent and awarded Mrs. Golonka’s husband and five children $7 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages, finding that GM gave inadequate warning of a potential problem with the vehicle and could be responsible for 60% of the accident. However, the jury also found that Ms. Golonka was 40% responsible and the compensatory award was reduced to $4.2 million.
GM, as expected, and as it had done in the previous incidents, took the position that there was no basis for the award and that the incident was the result of driver error. Following the trial, GM issued the following statement placing the fault entirely on the decedent:
“This unfortunate incident occurred when Mrs. Golonka left her vehicle with the engine running, the transmission not in Park and without setting the parking brake, as instructed in her owner’s manual. The manual tells drivers how to properly part their vehicle and informs them of the possible consequences of not doing so. After holding Mrs. Golonka responsible for not following the instructions in the owner’s manual and finding the shift system was not defective, the jury nonetheless awarded damages. General Motors extends its sympathy to the Golonka family for the tragic loss they have suffered, but we do not believe there is any basis for this award. GM, like all manufacturers, continually makes improvements to its products and manuals. We do not believe these efforts should be used to support the awarding of compensatory damages, much less punitive damages. GM will appeal this verdict.”
Plaintiff’s experts were Mel Richardson (engineering and defect) and Dr. Mark Sanders (warnings and ergonomics). GM called Richard Keefer of Exponent (formerly Failure Analysis) on design and Jane Welch on warnings. (Golonka v. GM, Maricopa County Superior Court. Plaintiffs counsel: Adam Studnicki and Robert Boatman of Gallagher & Kennedy, Phoenix, AZ).
Copyright © Strategic Safety 1999. Reprinted with permission from Strategic Safety News, Vol. 2, Issue 6, Nov./Dec. 1999.