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It is one thing to be accused of chasing ambulances. It is quite another to try to design them. Yet that is what the class action lawyers who sued General Motors Corp. on behalf of owners of C/K full-sized pickup trucks seem to be about to do. The plaintiffs’ lawyers and their allies recently announced that they have come up with a $125 product that will fix the problem of the trucks’ side-saddled gas tank — the subject of the original lawsuit. They are now reportedly urging their clients to purchase and install the product, which has not been tested or approved by any legitimate auto maker or government safety agency. Why do trial lawyers want to get into the auto business? The answer, not surprisingly, is money. You see, as part of the original C/K truck class action settlement, GM agreed to provide the 5.8 million people who bought the full-size truck in the 1970s and 1980s a $1,000 coupon toward the purchase of a new GM vehicle. The lawyers netted a cool $27 million in fees. Not bad, but apparently not enough. Now, in contravention of the settlement agreement, the lawyers have created a mechanism to buy back the coupons for $100 apiece from those members of the class who don’t want them. The trial lawyers then plan to sell those coupons for a significant markup to rental car companies and other institutions that buy fleets of cars. SMOKE AND MIRRORS This looks very much like another get-rich-quick scheme for the lawyers. But the lawyers are presenting it as a way to help their clients get cash to fix their trucks (by buying this newly invented fix) — rather than just a $1,000 coupon toward the $20,000 purchase price of a new truck. The problem is that this is mostly smoke and mirrors. The lawyers aren’t telling their clients the whole story. First, the settlement does not authorize the coupon buyback. Second, even if it did, the $125 price tag they estimate for manufacturing their new product assumes that some manufacturer will agree to mass-produce the item. And third, that price does not include any installation costs. This is just the latest bizarre twist in the C/K truck saga. These trucks, with the gas tanks situated outside the vehicle frame, were one of the most popular vehicles sold in America. But in 1992, they were the subject of a hyperbolic “Dateline NBC” story in which the network magazine show used explosive toy rockets to attempt to show that the impact of an accident would explode side-saddled gas tanks. Soon thereafter, despite the fact that NBC apologized for rigging the episode and engineers for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded that there was no safety-related defect in the placement of the gas tank, there began an avalanche of lawsuits. NHTSA’s conclusion that a retrofit of the gas tank was not necessary, coupled with the settlement of the class action litigation, should have consigned the C/K truck issue to law school casebooks and legal policy seminars. Instead, the case continues over the $100 buyback coupon scheme and the lawyer-designed retrofit. Putting aside whether or not there’s anything wrong with the trucks, consumers run a significant safety risk if they follow their lawyers’ advice. No engineer would consider a major design change before it was thoroughly tested by the manufacturer. GM has gone to Louisiana state court to block the coupon scheme as a violation of the settlement agreement, which would put a quick end to the retrofit idea. Let’s hope GM succeeds in stopping the trial lawyers. After all, not only is the prospect of lawyers as manufacturers frightening, but when it fails, who will be left to sue the trial lawyers? Dick Thornburgh, counsel to Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, is a former attorney general of the United States.

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