The death of Derrick Thomas, a 33-year-old superstar footballer who played for the Kansas City Chiefs, as the result of a heart attack less than a month after being paralysed in a rollover accident in his Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle has resulted in manufacturer General Motors fighting a lawsuit likely to attract maximum media attention in the United States.

The Detroit News said that, more than four years later, a jury in Thomas’ adopted hometown will be asked to decide whether the crushed roof of his GM-built SUV killed him.

The paper said Morgan v. General Motors Corp., scheduled to begin on Monday, is potentially a pivotal case in the national debate over mandating stronger roofs in vehicles sold in the United States.

According to the Detroit News, the trial, in Jackson County, Missouri, is the latest in a series of lawsuits charging GM, Ford and other automakers with failing to protect occupants in rollovers of sport utilities and pickups.

In Washington, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, under pressure from Congress and auto safety groups, is preparing to seek the first overhaul of federal roof-strength standards since 1971, the paper noted.

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An estimated 7,000 people are killed or seriously injured each year in rollovers in which the roof was crushed, according to federal statistics cited by the paper, which added that recent roof-crush cases have produced enormous verdicts, including a $US349 million jury award last month to a California woman left a paraplegic after a rollover accident in a Ford Explorer.

The report said the case is attracting national attention in the sports-loving US because, after a troubled youth in an impoverished neighbourhood in south Miami, Florida, Thomas became a much loved athlete and humanitarian figure in Kansas City, as celebrated for reading to underprivileged kids on Saturday mornings as for sacking rival quarterbacks during Sunday afternoon football games.

He reportedly died in a Miami hospital of cardio-respiratory arrest, 16 days after the 6-foot-3-inch, 255-pound Pro Bowl player was paralysed from the chest down in a one-vehicle accident on the outskirts of Kansas City.

On Jan. 23, 2000, Thomas was driving his 1999-model Suburban in a heavy snowstorm, on his way to Kansas City airport, when it slid off Highway 435 and rolled over three times in the median, according to police reports cited by the Detroit News.

Thomas and a front-seat passenger reportedly were ejected from the Suburban – neither had been wearing a seat belt. One passenger died at the scene while a second passenger, who had been belted in, suffered minor injuries.

Eight months after Thomas died, his mother, Edith Morgan, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against GM and Royal Ventures Inc., owner of the Chevy dealership that sold Thomas the full-size SUV, the newspaper said.

The suit reportedly alleges the design of the Suburban’s roof was defective because it crushed down at least eight inches onto Thomas’ head, causing multiple fractures in his spine. “He sustained severe injuries before he was ejected from the vehicle,” the suit said, according to the paper.

In its response, GM reportedly said the accident resulted from Thomas driving “at an excessive, unsafe speed” and his failure “to use and wear the restraint system.”

GM spokesman Brian Akre told the Detroit News that the automaker would not comment on the case, while, last week, Judge JD Williamson reportedly told lawyers on both sides not to discuss the trial in the media.

But in the coming weeks, the paper noted, a parade of witnesses will testify on the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the biggest names in sports — and the safety of one of the best-selling SUVs on the road.

Eleven people died and 108 were injured in accidents on the icy roads around Kansas City on the day of the accident, the Detroit News said.

Witnesses reportedly told police that, at about 1.30pm, Thomas’ Suburban was seen speeding and weaving through traffic when it skidded off the divided highway.

The ambulance crew found Thomas lying in the road, unable to move his lower body, and he was flown the next day to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, and diagnosed with three fractured vertebrae, a severely sprained spinal cord and a closed-head injury, the Detroit News said.

Thomas reportedly underwent a major operation to stabilise his spine but died soon after as he was being moved from his hospital bed to a wheelchair on his way to therapy. An autopsy showed the cause as a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot, that traveled from his legs into his heart and lungs, the report added.

According to the newspaper, GM petitioned the court to move the Thomas case out of the Kansas City area due to “the notoriety of Derrick Thomas in Jackson County and the voluminous and prejudicial pretrial publicity”. The petition was denied.

The report said Thomas’ mother is represented by Michael Piuze, a California attorney who won an $18.6 million judgment against GM in a roof-crush case last year in Lincoln, Nebraska, while GM’s legal team is headed by John Hickey, a senior litigator from the prestigious Chicago firm of Kirkland & Ellis.

The newspaper said the trial will focus, in part, on GM documents dating back more than 30 years, when the automaker led an industry-wide effort to convince federal officials to adopt minimum roof standards after its own vehicles failed more stringent tests.

The Detroit News said that, according to NHTSA documents,  GM defends the 1971 law as adequate and opposes a new standard. The company reportedly also says in federal filings that consumer-safety studies have yet to prove that crushed roofs cause serious injuries and deaths.

The plaintiffs contend the design of the Suburban’s roof was defective and too weak to keep it from crushing Thomas’ neck and spine, the Detroit News said. The complaint also said the company has shown “a reckless and complete indifference to and a conscious disregard for the safety of others”, the paper added.

The Detroit News noted that the trial is expected to last four to six weeks, much of it devoted to highly technical testimony about roof test procedures, the strength of “A-pillars” that frame windshields, and the biomechanics of vehicle occupants in rollover conditions.