Lambert vs. General Motors Corporation

Rollover Roof Crush Verdict for Quadriplegic Driver of GM Blazer in California

Lambert vs. General Motors Corporation – Roof Crush Verdict for Quadriplegic Driver


Plaintiff and Respondent,

Defendant and Appellant.

(Super.Ct.No. RCV 039570)

APPEAL from the Superior Court of San Bernardino County. Jeffrey King,
Judge. Affirmed.

Introduction of Blazer Roof Crush Trial & Appeal

In 1990, plaintiff Robbie Lambert fell asleep at the wheel while driving a 1985 Chevrolet Blazer. The vehicle rolled several times. Plaintiff broke his neck and is now a quadriplegic. Plaintiff sued General Motors Corporation (GM) for negligence, claiming a defect
in the roof and seat belt designs. In a second trial after a previous reversal, a jury found
GM was liable on a theory of products liability, awarded damages of $25,700,000, and
assigned 60 percent of the fault to GM for a net judgment of $15,420,000. GM appeals
from the judgment and from the trial court’s ruling denying its motion for judgment
notwithstanding the verdict. The central issue, as debated by the experts, is whether
plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the roof crushing on plaintiff’s head or by plaintiff’s
head striking the roof before the roof collapsed. GM challenges plaintiff’s expert
evidence for the reasons expressed in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Zuckerman
(Zuckerman): “The value of opinion evidence rests not in the conclusion reached but in the
factors considered and the reasoning employed. [Citations.] Where an expert bases his
conclusion upon assumptions which are not supported by the record, upon matters which
are not reasonably relied upon by other experts, or upon factors which are speculative,
remote or conjectural, then his conclusion has no evidentiary value. [Citations.] In those
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Zuckerman (1987) 189 Cal.App.3d 1113, 1135-1136.circumstances the expert’s opinion cannot rise to the dignity of substantial evidence.
[Citation.]”Applying the principles stated in Zuckerman, we find substantial evidence
supports the judgment and affirm.

At trial, plaintiff and defendant presented conflicting expert evidence on the issue
of causation. Plaintiff’s experts tried to minimize the violence of the accident with the
aim of showing the Blazer’s weak design inadequate. In contrast, defendant’s experts
characterized the accident as more extreme in order to bolster their theory that plaintiff’s
injury was inevitable. On appeal, defendant little heeds the standard of review which
favors evidence supporting the judgment for plaintiff. Instead, defendant persistently
argues its expert evidence was more credible than plaintiff’s. On a vehicle, the vertical
“A” pillars support the front windshield on each side.
The “B” pillars are located behind the driver’s and front passenger’s doors; the “C”
pillars are located behind the rear passengers’ doors. The “front header” connects the
two “A” pillars at the roof line across the top of the windshield. The “roof rails” connect
the vertical pillars at the roof line above the side windows.
During the rollover, the driver’s side A-pillar partially collapsed, buckling the roof
rail, displacing the front header, and causing the roof to crush approximately 10 inches.
The roof showed two points of contact with plaintiff’s head, called “head strike” or
“witness marks,” one on the roof rail eight inches in front of the B-pillar and one on the
roof itself, eleven inches from the windshield and just behind the buckle in the roof. The
impact to the right side of plaintiff’s head above his ear compressed and fractured his
spine, rendering him a quadriplegic. Both the law and the experts agree a rollover automobile accident is far less
violent than a head-on collision because the velocity of the rolling vehicle causes the
energy released in an accident to dissipate.

Blazer Roof Crushing

Plaintiff sought to prove causation by presenting expert evidence that plaintiff’s vertical velocity or falling speed was 3.5 miles
per hour or less and that plaintiff should not have been injured at that low rate. Instead, the
plaintiff was injured by the roof crushing his neck and by the seat belt that permitted too
much excursion. Plaintiff’s design expert, Donald Friedman, an automobile safety expert and
design engineer, based his opinion on several factors. Friedman analyzed videotaped
experimental rollovers and concluded that the center mass of a rolling vehicle and its
occupant never fall more than one foot before the vehicle hits the ground so plaintiff’s
maximum vertical velocity was 3.5 miles per hour. Friedman conducted “drop tests” to
show that the Blazer’s roof, when dropped on sand bags from a height of five and one-
half inches, would strike the surface at 3.5 miles per hour and collapse 10 inches.
Friedman analyzed the “Malibu” tests, performed by GM’s experts in the 1980s,
purportedly showing that roof crush does not contribute to increased injury of a vehicle’s
occupant. Friedman concluded that the Malibu tests actually prove an inverse correlation
between roof strength and injury. A videotape vividly depicted this result for the jury.
During a rollover, the dummy’s head first touches the roof rail, after which the roof
crushes violently down on the dummy’s head and upper torso.

Blazer’s Roof Buckled

Plaintiff’s experts said plaintiff’s injury was caused by the Blazer’s roof striking
plaintiff at a vertical velocity between 10 and 20 miles per hour. During the rollover, the
roof and rail buckled. The intrusional velocity of the buckle, combined with the vertical
falling velocity, provided an impact velocity of more than 10 miles per hour, sufficient to
cause Lambert’s injury. Friedman asserted that, without the additional velocity from the
buckle, plaintiff’s neck would not have been broken. Finally, based on tests of a dummy
and a live subject (Friedman himself); Friedman declares no injury occurs from a hit to
the head at low speed.

Blazer Roof Drop Test

GM challenges the expert evidence, primarily that presented by Friedman. GM’s
main point is that plaintiff’s expert evidence consisted largely of speculation and
guesswork. GM criticizes the drop test, arguing that it did not duplicate the conditions of
plaintiff’s accident because the test vehicle was dropped on sandbags, not the same road
surface on which the accident occurred. GM performed its own “dolly rollover tests”
purporting to show that plaintiff’s falling speed was greater than five miles per hour and
instead was between 10 and 15 miles per hour. GM also disputes Friedman’s conclusion
that the roof buckle’s speed caused plaintiff’s injury. According to GM’s experts, the
injury occurred when plaintiff’s head hit the roof rail before the roof crushed. GM finally
contends that Friedman’s evidence disproves rather than proves causation. According to
GM, in a statement we struggle to understand: “. . . a protest contrary to the protester’s
own disproof of it is no evidence.”

Blazer Rollover & Roof Crush Tests

Plaintiff responds that the sandbag drop was not an accident re-creation but rather
an experiment meant to demonstrate the roof’s weakness and the conditions causing a
crush. Using GM’s same dolly tests, Friedman concluded plaintiff’s falling speed was
only two miles per hour and that the dolly tests demonstrated the same kind of damage as
occurred from the Blazer’s rollover. We summarize the nature of the battle between the parties’ experts but, as an
appellate court, we do not attempt to resolve the dispute; that is the jury’s province.
Nevertheless, GM’s attack on plaintiff’s expert evidence is not persuasive. This is not a
case in which plaintiff’s experts based their opinions on sheer speculation and
guesswork.GM has not convinced us that plaintiff’s experts violated any physical or
natural laws in reaching their conclusions. Their opinions are not inherently wrong,
impossible, or improbable. Instead, plaintiff’s experts based their opinions on extrapolations based on their
analyses of the accident and from independent experiments. The drop test was not a failed attempt to re-create the Blazer accident under the same conditions.
The drop test simply demonstrated the kind of damage occurring when vertical velocity is 3.5 miles per
hour. That result was consistent with Friedman’s conclusion that the center mass
traveled 3.5 miles per hour or less during the rollover. If we accept the validity of the
expert evidence regarding vertical velocity of 3.5 miles per hour, the defendant’s other
objections cannot stand. Especially, we must uphold the jury’s finding that plaintiff’s
injury was caused by the intrusion of the roof buckle against plaintiff’s head.
Both plaintiff and defendant’s experts testified extensively, thoroughly depicting
for the jury the parties’ respective positions regarding causation. The jury accepted
plaintiff’s experts over defendant’s. We perceive no reason to displace the jury’s
determinations. Our review of the record discloses substantial evidence allowing a jury
to find causation based on the expert evidence.

Blazer Roof Too Weak -Design Defect

GM also argues that there was insufficient evidence of a design defect because
plaintiff did not prove a safer alternative design for the roof or the seat belts. Because
plaintiff established causation, GM had the burden of proof to show the benefits of the
design outweighed its risks.

The Blazer’s roof was built to withstand 5,500 pounds of pressure. GM argues the
Blazer was 99.5 percent effective in preventing injuries to belted occupants and that
plaintiff’s expert, nevertheless, proposed a roof that could withstand 33,000 pounds of
pressure. GM maintains a roof of that strength would present greater danger,
outweighing any benefit of the design.

GM mischaracterizes Friedman’s testimony. The figure of 99.5 percent was
derived from a table used by Friedman which showed that, in rollover accidents
occurring in the United States between 1988 and 1992, there were serious or fatal head,
face, and neck injuries to fewer than one-half percent (or 9,400) of the restrained
occupants. The table offered no specific data about the Blazer’s performance in
rollovers. About the Blazer, Friedman testified: “General Motors data . . . tells you what
is happening with the GM fleet and there the s-pickup is showing what I would suspect it
would show, that it’s [rollovers] a pretty serious problem.” Nor did Friedman propose a 33,000 pound roof as the only safe alternative design.
Instead Friedman testified a strong roof should withstand 12,000 pounds of pressure
without crushing more than four inches. But the Blazer had the weakest roof
manufactured by GM.

Thus the two premises are wrong upon which GM bases its argument concerning
the lack of proof of a roof defect. Instead, the evidence showed that by using closed, not
open, roof rails, at the cost of a few dollars, the Blazer roof could have been sufficiently
strengthened to prevent plaintiff’s injury. Because we find substantial evidence to support a jury verdict based on a finding
of a defect in the Blazer’s roof design we do not need to discuss the seat belt design
defect, although we observe there was substantial evidence to support that claim as well.

The judgment is affirmed and plaintiff shall recover his costs.


* The Willis Law Firm was not involved in this particular case, but have included this summary in order to help illustrate the theories of defense employed by General Motors in the defense of these case.