A jury found General Motors (GM) guilty of negligently designing the fuel tank in a family station wagon that exploded after a low-speed crash. Six people burned, and two died, including a young boy named Shane McGee.
The McGee family sued GM for their horrible burn injuries and for the death of Shane. During the six-month trial, attorney Bob Kelley questioned a former GM engineer named Ronald Elwell. Elwell testified that GM knew of the problem with this fuel tank, and knew how to solve it with a fuel tank shield that cost approximately $4.50. Elwell explained that GM decided not to fix the problem because even at only $4.50 the shield cost too much.
General Motors tried to exclude from evidence a study calculating how much it would be worth for GM to eliminate deaths from fuel-fed fires in GM vehicles. The study concluded that fuel-fed fires cost GM $2.20 per vehicle and that it would only be worth $2.40 per new model vehicle to prevent all fuel-fed fires. Attorney John Uustal obtained secret documents about this study, which were revealed to the American public for the very first time during the trial. This evidence revealed a massive cover-up to hide GM’s decision to let people burn alive to increase profits.
The McGees’ attorneys fitted an exemplar station wagon with a fuel tank shield and then ran a crash test at substantially higher speeds than the actual collision. The real automobile accident was so minor that the McGees initially thought they had been hit by a basketball. The crash test was run at 30 miles per hour, simulating a direct spear-like impact into the tank. The shield worked, even in that very severe test. The fuel system maintained its integrity. No fuel leaked out, and the fuel tank essentially undamaged, as shown in photographs taken immediately after the shield was removed.
The news media initially reported that the verdict was for $33 million, but the actual verdict was for $60 million. The appellate courts ordered GM to pay the full $60 million dollars, plus $31 million in interest.
The CBS program 60 Minutes ran a long segment on the case and on the ways the trial has affected this country.