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The 18-wheeler that ran into Silvandria Iracheta’s car on Highway 83 outside Laredo, Texas, killed her instantly. But her two children may not have been so lucky. When her 1988 Oldsmobile Toronado came to rest at the side of the road after a head-on collision on the afternoon of Aug. 12, 1997, witnesses said, her two children, Edgar, 10, and David, 4, were still alive. But as the bystanders struggled to extricate the boys from the already burning wreckage, gasoline leaking from the car pooled underneath and eventually ignited, engulfing the car. Miraculously spared in the collision, the two boys burned to death, asserted lawyer Robert E. Lapin of Houston’s Carrigan, Lapin & Landa, who painted this gruesome picture recently for a Webb County, Texas, jury. A ‘FUEL-FED FIRE’ So convinced was the jury of Lapin’s theory that the car manufacturer was at fault that on Nov. 3 they found not only that the car design by defendant General Motors Corp. was defective, but also that the company had acted with malice when it allegedly chose not to correct a problem with the car’s fuel system. The jury returned a $10 million verdict, but GM quickly moved to limit additional punitive damages to the $750,000 maximum allowed under Texas law. A “post-collision fuel-fed fire” lawsuit, Iracheta v. General Motors, No. 97-01382, dealt with the design of a tube connected to the Toronado’s gas tank that allows unused gasoline to flow back from the engine to the tank. Lapin argued that the tube, when ruptured, siphons gasoline out of the tank, creating a fire hazard. The suit was brought under the Texas Wrongful Death and Survival statutes by Rita L. Iracheta, Silvandria’s mother and administrator of the estates of her deceased grandchildren. The jury found that there was a design defect in the car that resulted in the death of Edgar (the defense produced evidence that David was killed before the fire), and that the harm to Edgar was the result of malice on the part of GM. The 10 jurors exonerated the boys’ mother of any wrongdoing. The court, in its jury charge question No. 9, said that GM could be found to have acted with malice if the jurors found that it knew of the risk involved with the fuel system but consciously decided not to remedy it. Lapin said that the victory could be the first time a jury has found against General Motors in such a case. The verdict could also be the first time a jury has found malice in such a case under the higher, clear-and-convincing standard established by tort reform in Texas, although a GM lawyer, Kyle H. Dreyer of Dallas’ Hartline, Dacus, Dreyer & Kern, could not confirm that contention. In fact, Dreyer warned that the judge’s decision to allow the jury to consider malice at all will figure prominently in an appeal. He maintains that Lapin did not prove the theory that the “return lines” leaked fuel as a result of a defective design, let alone malice on the part of General Motors. “There’s no question that the case evokes tremendous amounts of sympathy, but there was no evidence of any other accident where there was a burn injury or burn death from fuel siphoning from this system,” said Dreyer. He added that GM is waiting to see whether Judge Manuel Flores affirms the jury award, a ruling Lapin expects in the next week. Lapin criticized the defense for not having a representative of GM at the trial, saying that it seemed to offend jurors, who knew of the absence because, Lapin said, “I pointed it out as often as I could.”

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