On November 4, 2006, Shona Scott was riding as a passenger in her 1994 Pontiac Bonneville. The car ran off the roadway resulting in it overturning. The roof on the passenger side where Shona was sitting crushed in. As a result, Shona, who was properly belted, suffered a C-7 spinal fracture of the neck, rendering her a quadriplegic. The driver walked away from this accident with only minor injuries. The 1994 Pontiac Bonneville was manufactured by General Motors. This vehicle was part of a project within GM known as the “2500 Project.”
The goal of this project was to reduce the manufacturing cost of each vehicle by $2,500. To save that much money, GM used lighter, less-safe materials. GM thinned the metal and shaved the door beam. GM used low-strength steel rather than high-strength steel in order to save money. As a result of GM’s choice to put profits over safety, Shona now faces a life where she is completely dependant on others for her care. She faces astronomical medical expenses. Shona is only 45 years old.
On June 24, 2007, Florian Hinrichs was a passenger in a GM pickup truck. Florian was properly belted. While driving down a rural county road in Alabama, the GM truck was unexpectedly hit by another vehicle that failed to yield the right-of-way. As a result of the impact, the truck went off the roadway overturning once. The rollover caused the roof of the GM truck to completely collapse onto Florian. Florian is now a quadriplegic. The driver of the GM truck walked away from the accident with minor injuries.
Florian was a 27-year-old helicopter pilot with the German Air Force. He was in Alabama training at Ft. Rucker. Florian, too, is now completely dependant on others for his care and faces substantial financial hardship. He obviously can no longer pilot a helicopter. His life has been tragically and forever changed.
These are the stories of two of the victims hardest hit by GM’s bankruptcy. These are our clients who we must now tell that they may not get their day in court. If the Bankruptcy Court allows GM to shed its legal responsibility to our clients, a jury will not hear how GM’s motivation to maximize its profits destroyed Shona’s and Florian’s lives. But their stories are just two of the thousands of folks who have been or will be killed or injured by GM or Chrysler vehicles. These are the stories of average folks who have been seriously injured or who have lost a loved one as a result of a defective GM or Chrysler vehicle. They have twice been victimized by these companies.
The bankruptcy has, in the case of Chrysler, and will, in the case of GM, immunize these companies from the responsibilities for death and injuries from the defects in all of their automobiles sold before the bankruptcy. There are approximately ten million Chrysler vehicles currently on the road. There are approximately 30 million GM vehicles on the road. People don’t realize that, according to the bankruptcy plans, families driving these vehicles now on the road, who may be severely injured or killed as a result of a safety defect in the car in the future, will have no legal recourse against GM or Chrysler.
In a sad ironic twist, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court that handled the Chrysler bankruptcy determined that public policy was served when it determined that Fiat should only assume the liabilities that promote its commercial interest. Under the terms of the deal, Fiat or “the new Chrysler” will have no further responsibility for injuries or wrongful death claims linked to defects in the cars they sold.
U. S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri recently hit the nail on the head at a Congressional hearing related to the bankruptcy when she was questioning a GM representative:
McCaskill: I understand that you guys are going to try to do a 363 bankruptcy similar to Chrysler.
McCaskill: In an almost unprecedented fashion, there has been a decision made in the Chrysler bankruptcy that if someone bought a Chrysler six weeks ago and there is a defect in that car there will be liability in the new company for the recall costs, for the warranty costs — they will be required to fix the car. But if because of that defect a child loses their life because of an accident or if a man loses his legs because of an accident, there is absolutely nowhere for that person to turn. Now that, to me, seems like a very weird result. And it is very unusual in bankruptcy to have absolutely no requirement of insurance for any kind of defects that may be there, especially if the product is going to be carried forward. I need to know on the record, Mr. Henderson, if you are going to seek that same kind of immunity for existing claims and potential claims for any cars that have been sold prior to the closing of your bankruptcy.
Henderson: That would be our expectation.
McCaskill: Well, I’m very troubled by that. I don’t get how we can afford to fix the car but if someone loses their life or limb there is no liability. And by the way. I’ve understood that since that happened we’ve had several companies go back and make filing for 363s now, thinking they can come in and absolve themselves of any liability they might have for defects. I think that is very troubling moving forward.
Think about this – right now there are 40 million Chrysler and GM cars on the road, some of which tragically will have defects that will kill or injure people. Historical data compiled for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration indicates that 47% of all deaths and injury claims filed against auto manufacturers involve Chrysler and GM cars. In the last five years alone, these claims involved 3,497 casualties connected to problems with Chrysler cars; 15,284 connected to problems with GM cars. Examples include seatbelts that fail and strangle children; seat backs that collapse and cause brain injuries; unstable vehicles that flip and roofs that cave, crushing occupants; cars with gears that “self-shift” from park to reverse and end up running people over; and gasoline tanks and brake fluid containers that are improperly positioned and catch fire or explode, severely burning and killing occupants. You can do the math. Thousands and thousands of ordinary everyday folks, as it stands today, just lost their legal right to any recourse against Chrysler and potentially GM, even if they are injured or killed in the future. This is outrageous, and the numbers are potentially staggering.
Our leaders in Washington need to close this ticking time bomb loophole now and protect consumer safety. Force GM and Chrysler to accept responsibility for their existing products. It simply isn’t right or fair to use taxpayer dollars to bail out GM and Chrysler in a way that takes away those same taxpayers’ legal rights. A company that has been badly managed should not receive billions of our taxpayer dollars from the U.S. Government while individual taxpayers who have been injured or killed by these companies are left with no remedy.
The victims’ stories have been virtually buried in all of the reports about the bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors. Hopefully, that story is now being heard and the Obama Administration and Congress will respond. I urge all of our readers to write their Senators and members of the House, as well as President Obama, about this travesty of justice.
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