General Motors filed an appeal on Wednesday (6/12/00) seeking to overturn a record $US4.9 billion jury verdict in a 1999 case involving a Chevrolet Malibu that was rear-ended and burst into flames, severely burning the passengers, Associated Press reports.

Last July, a Superior Court jury awarded Patricia Anderson, her four children and a family friend $US107 million in compensatory damages and $US4.8 billion in punitive damages for injuries they suffered during the Christmas Eve 1993 accident. The verdict was believed to be the largest product-liability award in United States history.

One month later, a judge reduced the punitive damages to $US1.09 billion, saying the original award was excessive.

AP says that, in a brief filed with the California 2nd District Court of Appeal, GM claims the trial judge refused to let it introduce evidence that the driver who hit the Anderson car was drunk, a factor that would have led the jury to assign less blame to GM.

The company also claims the judge erred by refusing to allow the jury to hear evidence of the Malibu's safety record.

GM asked the court to overturn the original verdict or order a new trial.

"Central, critical facts essential to the defense were not permitted to be proved,'' GM attorney David Heilbron told AP on Wednesday. "The result was an utterly extraordinary verdict.''

The victims' attorney, Brian Panish, contended during the trial that GM chose to place the gas tank behind the axle and close to the rear bumper to save money, rather than position it in a safer spot above the axle at a cost of a few more dollars per car.

Panish reportedly said the appeal was groundless.

"GM got caught red-handed putting profits over safety,'' Panish said. "Instead of accepting responsibility for the damages they have caused, they continue to blame everybody but themselves.''

According to the appeal, the jury was not allowed to hear evidence that the Malibu's fire fatality rate was comparable to similar vehicles.

"A fire-related death in a Malibu would occur once in every 23.9 billion miles driven,'' according to a summary of the appeal.

The appeal also claims that the attorney for the plaintiff used personal attacks during his closing remarks that prejudiced the jury, AP says.

Finally, GM claims the punitive damages award was inappropriate.

"Punitive damages, which, by definition, are intended to punish evil actions, were not appropriate in this case,'' attorneys for GM said in a statement.

Panish said the jury heard and rejected the arguments made in GM's appeal.

"GM made a deliberate, conscious, mathematical calculation to allow 300-500 people a year to burn to death because it would be cheaper to fight lawsuits than spend $8.59 per vehicle to fix the problem,'' Panish said in a statement. "They can't be put in jail, so they have to have a punishment that hurts.''

The plaintiffs have 30 days to file a response, although Heilbron said extensions of 60 days or more were likely to be granted because of the length of the trial record. A hearing on the appeal is not likely to occur until well into next year.