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Senate Mulls Criminalizing A Tort Issue

The Daily Journal
By Lawrence Hurley – Daily Journal Staff Writer


Proposal to Add Prosecution for Product Liability

WASHINGTON — The Los Angeles attorney who won a record-setting $4.9 billion verdict against automaker General Motors in an exploding fuel tank case told Congress Friday there ought to be a law to put deceitful corporate executives in prison.

Brian Panish testified that the judgment he won in Los Angeles Superior Court in 1999, a jury award larger than any previous verdict in a personal injury and product liability action, speaks for the need to hold corporate bosses criminally culpable if they knowingly sign off on defective products.

Specter Prepares Bill

Panish, of Panish Shea & Boyle, got a warm reception from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arien Specter, who is preparing a bill on the issue. The veteran Republican senator from Pennsylvania noted that his professional interest in exploding gas tanks dates back to his stint as district attorney of Philadelphia in the early 1970’s, when fire-prone Ford Pintos put consumer safety in the national spotlight.

However, any effort to craft criminal penalties for product liability is likely to meet strong resistance from the manufacturing sector. An industry representative and a renowned torts expert warned Friday that the proposed legislation is too vague and may be unconstitutional.

In Panish’s career-defining win against GM, he presented evidence at trial that the company knew the fuel tank on its Chevrolet Malibu vehicle was dangerous because of the location of the fuel tank.

Patricia Anderson and her four children, the plaintiffs in the case, were badly burned when a car rear-ended her Malibu on December 24, 1993, causing the fuel tank to ignite.

Threat of Criminal Sanctions

General Motors has always denied that the car was defective, blaming the accident on the drunk driver of the vehicle that rear-ended Anderson.

A judge later reduced the award to $1.2 billion, and after General Motors appealed, the claim was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.

Panish said at Friday’s hearing that General Motors executives might have been deterred from putting the car on the market if they had known that they, personally, could be punished.

“The threat of criminal sanctions could help corporate executives make safer and better choices,” he said.


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