Another example of how personal injury attorneys and the “Center for Auto Safety” actually care very little about auto safety: In 2001, Louis Stockell, driving his pickup at 70 mph, twice the speed limit, rear-ended a Chrysler minivan. Physics being what they are, the front passenger seat in the van collapsed backwards and the passenger’s head struck and fatally injured 8-month old Joshua Flax. The rest of the family walked away from the horrific accident. Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Butler argued that Chrysler, which already designed its seats above federal standards, should be punished for not making the seats stronger — never mind that a stronger and stiffer seat would result in more injuries from other kinds of crashes because it wouldn’t absorb any energy from the crash. (Rear-end collisions are responsible for only 3% of auto fatalities.) Apparently car companies are expected to anticipate which type of crash a particular vehicle will encounter, and design accordingly. The $105M verdict includes $98M in punitives, a number that will almost certainly be reduced, but the entire verdict is inappropriate. “It is unfairly punishing DaimlerChrysler for a reasonable engineering decision that resulted in a product that met all federal standards,” DaimlerChrysler spokesman Jason Vines said. (Rob Johnson, “Jury awards $105.5 M in baby’s death”, The Tennesseean, Nov. 24; Matt Gouras, AP, Nov. 24; “DaimlerChrysler Is Told to Pay $98 Mln in Van Crash”, Bloomberg, Nov. 23; Sheila Burke, “Chrysler being sued over baby’s van death”, The Tennesseean, Nov. 4). More coverage: Dec. 21.
Somehow, we have not previously covered James Butler on Overlawyered. We shall correct that oversight.
A magazine recently did a puff piece on Butler that only mentioned in a sidebar that his most famous verdict, $105 million in Moseley v. General Motors, as seen on Court TV, was overturned on appeal. (David Whitford, “Is James Butler Out to Get You?”, Fortune Small Business, June 2003; Walter Olson, “The Most Dangerous Vehicle On the Road”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9, 1993 (more on Moseley)). A 1997 piece in the National Law Journal recognized a successful defense against a Butler-brought rollover case featuring Butler’s standard tactics of personal attacks. (“Successful Strategies from 10 of the nation’s top litigators”, Sep. 22, 1997).
The first chapter of Max Boot’s Out of Order tells the tale of another Butler trial, Hardy v. General Motors. (An amusing personal side note: David Horowitz wrote an angry letter to Amazon complaining about the left-wing bias exhibited by the little-known reviewer Amazon used for Boot’s book.)
In the 1996 case of Hardy, a drunk driver who wasn’t wearing his seat-belt flipped his Blazer and paralyzed himself when he was thrown from the vehicle. Though GM analysis showed the door didn’t even open, the theory of liability was a defective door latch. Butler and the other plaintiff’s lawyers peremptorily excluded all the white members of the panel, and an all-black jury awarded the black plaintiff $150 million. As one juror put it to Boot, “I don’t feel like all the GM door latches are bad. I ain’t got nothin’ against GM ’cause I use GM motor products myself… He got paralyzed. I figured we should give him something.” The firm of Butler’s co-counsel, Jere Beasley (Apr. 15 and links therein) represented the judge’s wife, but the judge refused to recuse himself. Welcome to Hayneville, Alabama. The case eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.
Full disclosure: I represented General Motors in a variety of cases, including work on the civil contempt case against James Butler (In re General Motors Corp.), which resulted in a $190,541 fine on Butler, made so high, according to the Court, by Butler’s “Stalingrad defense” tactics. (The opinion is useful for nostalgia reasons, too: remember when one could retain a premier law firm partner for only $220 to $425/hour?) I was not one of the lawyers Butler accused of perjury.