The Mosely vs GM "Side-Saddle Fuel Tank" Case

In February 1993, a suburban Atlanta jury ordered General Motors Corp. to pay $101 million in punitive damages to the parents of 17-year-old Shannon Moseley, who died in a fiery crash in his 1985 GMC Sierra pickup truck in 1989. The boy's truck was struck on the side by a vehicle driven by a drunken driver who ran a red light.

The jury found that GM knew the trucks had a defective fuel-tank design but had failed to correct it. GM had placed the fuel tank outside the frame of the pickup, which safety critics said made it vulnerable to puncturing during a crash. At the time of the Moseley verdict, GM faced at least 130 other lawsuits involving the design of the fuel tank. The fuel tank design was used for trucks manufactured between 1973 and 1987. Beginning in 1988, GM moved the fuel tanks inside the truck frame, but denied that it did so for safety reasons. Some have likened the design to placing a human's heart outside the rib cage.

The jury had earlier awarded the boy's parents, Elaine and Thomas, $4.2 million in compensatory damages. The Moseleys had refused GM's offers to settle the case.

The major issue in the trial was whether the fuel-tank placement and design were defective and caused Shannon to burn to death after his pickup was struck on the side by another vehicle. GM argued that Shannon was killed almost instantly upon impact and not from the fire that occurred shortly thereafter. GM sought to show that Shannon had not experienced pain and suffering, a prerequisite for a punitive damages award in Georgia. But the jury apparently believed the plaintiffs' eyewitness testimony that Shannon had been conscious after the impact and during the resulting fire -- and that he undoubtedly experienced great pain and suffering.

The case also involved the defection of a former GM safety engineer, Ronald E. Elwell, who testified that the company had intentionally hidden its knowledge of a dangerous safety defect. Elwell, whose testimony GM tried to block, said the company had known for years that the design was defective but refused to fix it for fear of alerting the public. Ironically, Elwell had testified in more than 15 previous cases as an expert for GM and had stated that the design was safe.

In addition, videotapes of GM's own crash tests between 1981 and 1983 showed that when the pickup was struck on the side by another vehicle its fuel tank broke open.

According to juror John Dale, a vice president for a Georgia distribution company: "We felt there was wanton and willful disregard for common sense."

Post-trial Note: In June 1994, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict in Moseley, finding that the plaintiffs had erred in presenting their case by referring to other lawsuits involving GM trucks. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed that ruling. Moseley v. GM is set for retrial. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a Georgia Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of a state statute awarding the state 75 percent of the punitive damages awarded in the case.

Used with permission from The Association of Trial Lawyers of America. All rights reserved.