Court upholds verdict in roof crush case

But GM won't concede defeat in $18.6 million jury award to woman paralyzed in 1997 crash.

Bill Vlasic / The Detroit News

It's been nearly nine years since Penny Shipler's spine was crushed when the roof of a 1996-model Chevrolet S-10 Blazer collapsed around her in a rollover accident.

But it wasn't until last week that the paralyzed Nebraska woman apparently won her long legal battle against General Motors Corp.

On March 10, the Nebraska Supreme Court unanimously upheld an $18.6 million jury award to Shipler, one of the largest court judgments linking vehicle roof-strength to severe injuries in rollovers.

GM had appealed the 2003 verdict against the automaker as excessive, claiming that jury instructions and evidence allowed in the case were improper.

But the Nebraska high court denied GM's appeal, bringing the day closer when Shipler, a 38-year old former waitress, can collect on her damage award.

Paralyzed from the neck down, Shipler and her 10-year-old son live on about $800 a month in Social Security payments, disability checks and food stamps.

"Her future medical care and assistance is estimated to cost $10 million," said Dan McCord, Shipler's attorney. "She desperately needs the money."

But despite having lost at trial and now on appeal, GM doesn't appear ready to concede defeat on the case.

GM spokeswoman Geri Lama said Thursday the automaker was "disappointed" with the Nebraska ruling. "GM will be taking all steps available to seek relief from the court's ruling," Lama said.

The automaker can ask for a re-hearing from the Nebraska Supreme Court, although the court's 47-page opinion rejected all of GM's claims against the trial court.

Foremost among its rulings, the state Supreme Court turned down GM's claim that the $18.6 million award -- believed to be the largest jury award in Nebraska history -- was too big.

"The court found no evidence that the damages were excessive or that they were awarded in the heat of passion or under any other undue influence," said Judge John Wright, writing for the court.

The trial court in the Shipler case found GM negligent in the design of the Blazer's roof, which crushed down an estimated eight inches on the passenger side where Shipler was riding on the night of Sept. 11, 1997.

A single mother who worked as a waitress at a local restaurant, Shipler accepted a ride home from work that night from a friend, Kenneth Long.

During the drive on a rural highway, Long lost control of the SUV and it rolled several times. At the trial in Lancaster County, Neb., the jury found the strength of the Blazer's roof was inadequate to protect Shipler.

Before the trial, Judge Steven Burns barred any evidence that Long and Shipler had been drinking alcohol before the accident. He also excluded evidence that Shipler may have improperly used her seat belt.

In a key portion of the Supreme Court opinion, the court called the case one of "strict liability" regarding the ability of the Blazer to protect its occupants.

The strength of vehicle roofs is among the hottest points of contention in the automotive-safety community.

Each year, an estimated 7,000 people are killed or severely injured in rollovers in which the roofs crushed, according to federal statistics.

The federal standard for vehicle-roof strength dates to 1971, when passenger cars far outnumbered rollover-prone SUVs and light trucks.

GM and other automakers have long argued that crushed roofs don't cause injuries. But after pressure from auto-safety groups, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year proposed a new roof-strength standard.

The proposed new standard extends roof-strength requirements from vehicles weighing 6,000 pounds to those weighing up to 10,000 pounds. The new rule would also require that vehicle roofs withstand greater pressure in federal testing.

Through her attorney, Shipler said she hopes that her high-profile case will help keep up the pressure on automakers to make roofs stronger and safer.

"I hope my case will be a reason for GM to improve the roofs of these vehicles so what happened to me doesn't continue to happen," Shipler said.

But McCord said the publicity-shy Shipler had little else to say under the circumstances.

"She said, 'I don't have any of the money yet,' " McCord said. "There's not much she wants to say until this is finally over."