Torts: Corvair's Second Case

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General Motors has won a significant decision in the case of the controversial Corvairs. Some 85 suits have been brought against G.M. by victims—and dependents of victims—injured in accidents involving Corvairs built in the 1960-63 model years. Almost all claim that the car's rear axle (since redesigned) gave the Corvair an inherent instability and a tendency to oversteer, resulting sometimes in fatal accidents. G.M. won the first suit last month by convincing a California jury that a fatal accident involving a 1960 Corvair was caused by driver inexperience; but the jury's decision was not so much a vindication of the car as a condemnation of the driver. A second case at Clearwater, Fla., however, has resulted in a more meaningful victory for the giant automaker.

Suits & More Suits. The Florida accident occurred in 1963, as State Legislators James T. Russell and David C. Anderson were driving home to St. Petersburg from a session of the legislature in Tallahassee. On U.S. Highway 19, Russell's 1962 Corvair Monza went out of control and overturned, hurling Anderson out the door. He died six days later.

Anderson's widow sued Russell—eventually he settled out of court for $15,000—and then both she and Russell sued G.M. They also brought suit against the local Corvair dealer and the U.S. Rubber Corp., which had manufactured the car's tires. Against G.M., they made two charges: that the Corvair's doors and door handles were too weak to withstand the pressure of a rollover, and that because of a poorly designed rear axle, the rear wheels tended to tuck in and lose all traction in a swerve.

G.M. put up a thoroughgoing defense. It hired St. Petersburg Attorney Robert Nunez and another local lawyer, dispatched two G.M. general counsels from Detroit, also sent down G.M. Engineer Horatio Shakespeare. To counter the claim that the Corvair's doors were weak, the company brought in a metallurgist from the University of Illinois and an accident specialist from U.C.L.A. G.M. reconstructed aspects of the accident by crashing three cars, took motion pictures of the crashes in both color and black and white.

Unanimous Acquittal. The trial in Clearwater's state circuit court lasted six weeks. Judge Victor O. Wehle directed acquittal verdicts for both U.S. Rubber and the local Corvair dealer, thus leaving G.M. the sole defendant. He instructed the jurors to hold the company up to a standard of strict liability—meaning that G.M. would be held responsible if the car had any inherent defect. After deliberating for 13 hours, the Clearwater jurors unanimously acquitted G.M.

Though the decision is only one jury's opinion and does not set a binding legal precedent, it will probably discourage future suits against Corvair. It has already influenced Lawyer Nunez's life in several ways. While gathering evidence for the trial, he searched long and hard for the death car. Tracing it to a used-car lot 213 miles from the scene of the accident, he bought it with G.M.'s money, had the company put it through a series of tests that proved useful in preparing the defense. Nunez still has the Corvair. "I drive it all the time," says he. "It drives wonderfully. I don't drive it over 80, though."