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In what is being called the largest known verdict in a case over the sudden acceleration of a motor vehicle, General Motors Corp. has been ordered to pay $80 million to a Missouri woman whose car sped out of control while backing down the driveway. A Jackson County, Mo., jury awarded Constance Peters and her husband $30 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages for an accident two years ago that left her in a vegetative state. Peters v. GM, No. 01CV20591F (Jackson Co., Mo., Cir. Ct.). A defect in the car’s cruise control allegedly caused the vehicle to speed up when Peters shifted into reverse, sending her car 120 feet across the street into a tree. General Motors is appealing. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s a clear-cut case of pedal misapplication. She hit the accelerator instead of the brake,” GM spokesman Jay Cooney said. “We don’t think there is anything wrong with the vehicle.” Ohio attorney Thomas Murray, who specializes in sudden-acceleration cases and who is currently handling a similar case in Tennessee involving a Ford car, said the verdict marks a breakthrough for such cases. He said this is the first substantial award issued in such a case, which, he said, usually gets thrown out or generates smaller awards. “I feel that the problem of unwanted sudden accelerations has been around for so long, it has been surprising to me that a jury has not brought in a substantial punitive award earlier,” said Murray of Murray & Murray in Sandusky, Ohio. “I think it’s highly likely that other juries are going to do the same thing until the car companies are going to do something to correct this problem.” DESIGN PROBLEM ALLEGED Missouri attorney Mark Evans, the lawyer in the Peters case, maintains that Peters’ accident on Sept. 6, 2000, was the result of a design problem with the cruise control mechanism. She was driving a 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass. He argued that an electrical charge in the mechanism activated the throttle and caused the car to take off down the driveway. He said that after the vehicle hit the tree, it reversed direction on its own, came back across the street, rolled over some landscaping and ended up in Peters’ yard. “We thought that the accident facts proved that it couldn’t have been her foot, that it had to be the cruise control that accelerated the vehicle,” said Evans of Langdon, Emison, Kuhlman & Evans in Lexington, Mo. This alleged design problem does not apply to GM cars made after 1996, according to Evans. He said he sought punitive damages against GM because the auto giant allegedly knew of this design problem in the past, but did nothing to correct it. Evans said that during trial he presented the jury with videotaped testimony of six other people involved in similar sudden-acceleration accidents. Two additional witnesses testified in court, he said. GM attorney Rod Loomer of Turner, Reid, Dunkin, Loomer and Patton in Springfield, Mo., declined to comment on the case. GM spokesman Cooney contends the accident was the result of driver error. According to Cooney, there was an EMS report that showed Peters suffered a cardiac incident when backing out of the driveway, causing her fully to depress the accelerator. That report, he said, was not admitted into evidence at trial. Murray, who has handled five sudden-acceleration cases in the last two years, asserted that this is an old problem that is finally coming to light. He is currently handling a sudden-acceleration case in Marysville, Tenn., involving a Ford vehicle that sped out of control in a church parking lot. Murray said the car ended up on the steps of the church, killing one parishioner and injuring several others.

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