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Lawyer James I. Seifter claims that a poorly designed Cadillac seatbelt led to the death of a Gwinnett County, Ga., man in a 1999 crash. If Seifter is right, discovery in the case could spark interest in similar suits against General Motors. Seifter, of Smolar, Roseman & Seifter, says he hopes to “show that, yes, [this seatbelt's failure] is happening around the country.” The lawyer says he anticipates disputes over discovery in the case, which will include requests for records from GM on whether seatbelt failures have figured in other accidents involving GM cars. “Frequently, cases are, in large part, won in discovery,” he says. Seifter says there are other cases nationwide that involve the same seatbelt GM used in the 1997 Seville, though he offered no details. It makes little sense, he says, that the manufacturer would use the seatbelt in only one of its cars. The wrongful death suit alleges that a Cadillac’s flawed seatbelt led to the death of 65-year-old William L. Smith in a 1999 crash. Seifter filed the suit June 12 on behalf of William L. Smith’s four children and the executor of his estate. Smith v. General Motors, No. 01VS019059A (Fult. St. June 12, 2001). Smith’s wife, Jimmie Rebecca, also died in the collision. A GM spokesman, D. Jay Cooney, says the company has been served, but he hasn’t seen the complaint. King & Spalding will handle the case, Cooney says. The suit claims that the Cadillac’s seatbelt didn’t restrain Smith because the spool didn’t lock. As a result, when the crash occurred, he was thrown from his seat, missed the airbag and struck the dashboard. Seifter is experienced in auto product liability cases. In 1994 he won a $43 million verdict for the Franklin Ford family in its suit against Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. The Georgia Court of Appeals later threw out the award, but Uniroyal settled for an undisclosed amount last year after Seifter secured incriminating statements from workers at one of the Uniroyal tire plants. Seifter is also one of the lawyers representing Reginald Francis, who is suing Bridgestone/Firestone for the wrongful death of his wife in 1999. Francis v. Bridgestone/Firestone, No. 00A73486-2 (DeKalb St. Nov. 16, 2000). The defendants in the Smith case include several corporations in addition to General Motors. General Electric, Bendix, Honeywell and Allied-Signal Inc. are cited for their roles in designing, manufacturing and installing the automobile’s safety system, which includes seatbelts, airbags and possibly other devices. The suit also names individuals Edwin Martinez, Anthony Miller and Jason Garwood. According to the complaint, these three defendants caused the wreck that killed Smith by distracting the driver, Virath Rattanasouk, while they scuffled over the choice of music in the car’s CD player. The defendants have until mid-July to file an answer. Rattanasouk settled his portion of the damages before the Smith family filed its complaint, Seifter says. Seifter says the suit is a good test of the seatbelt allegations because the Smiths had absolutely no blame in the collision that killed them. “[The case] deals with the two central issues of crashworthiness and occupant restraint,” he says. “[The Smiths] had no blame with respect to this incident.” They were driving in their lane, Seifter says. They hadn’t been drinking. They were driving below the speed limit. Most importantly, he says, they were wearing their seatbelts. The Smiths were running an errand on Buford Highway in Suwanee, Ga., at about 5:50 p.m. on June 18, 1999. Jimmie Smith was driving and William Smith was a passenger in the right front seat. In the oncoming lane, Rattanasouk was driving his 1993 Toyota Camry, with Martinez, Garwood and Miller as passengers. The three fought over which CD to play in the car stereo, distracting Rattanasouk. He crossed the center line and crashed into the Smiths’ car. Everyone in the Camry lived. “[The Smiths] were doing everything right,” Seifter says. “They should have walked away from that crash.” Another wrongful death case involving claims of a flawed auto safety restraint system went to a Fulton, Ga., state jury in February after 11 years of litigation. The jurors returned a verdict of $11 million against Volkswagen for the family of Lori Gentry, who was 16 when she died in a 1989 wreck. The Gentrys claimed that the Volkswagen Rabbit, in which Gentry had been riding, had a faulty seatbelt design. The Rabbit seatbelt lacked a lap belt, instead relying on seat design to hold a passenger in place. Gentry v. Volkswagen, No. 90VS14903H (Fult. St. verdict Feb. 8 2001). Georgia courts were the setting for another big plaintiffs’ victory against GM in 1993. Butler Wooten’s James E. Butler Jr. won a $105.24 million verdict for his clients in their suit against GM. The plaintiffs in that case claimed that external fuel tanks on GM pickups were defective and likely to explode. Moseley v. General Motors, No. 90VS6276 (Fult. St. Feb. 5, 1993). That case later was overturned on appeal and settled out of court. The Smiths were specifically trying to avoid the kind of circumstance that killed them, Seifter says. They bought the Cadillac at least partly on its reputation as a big, safe “tank” to take on the roads. “These people wanted to buy the safest car they possibly could,” he says. “This was the one the dealer told him would be the safest.”

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