Ex-GM Executive Turns Courtroom Crusader

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Expert witness, lawyer use automaker’s data to win $26M test case

Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

Robbie Lambert gives his daughter, Kamea, a ride in their Rolling Hills, Calif., home. Lambert became a quadraplegic after a rollover accident in his Chevy Blazer.

Key verdicts

Here are some major jury awards in lawsuits involving crushed vehicle roofs since 1990. Most roof-crush lawsuits are settled out of court. In some cases, the companies were only held partially responsible for the award.

Case Date Award

Buccolo v. GM 1990 $10.3M

Hughes v. GM 1994 $11.9M

Lambert v. GM* 1996 $15.0M

Hess v. Ford 1998 $12.5M

Romo v. Ford** 1999 $23.7M

Styles v. GM 2001 $5.2M

Lambert v. GM 2001 $25.7M

Harris v. Ford 2002 $8.1M

Shipler v. GM 2003 $18.6M

Benavides v. Ford*** 2003 $225M

*GM appeal upheld in 1998; new trial ordered.

** Jury ordered $290 million in punitive damages, reduced by U.S. Supreme Court.

*** Parties settled out of court for undisclosed sum while on appeal.

Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

Former GM executive Don Friedman, who was the star expert witness in both of Robbie Lambert’s trials, contends GM’s internal data contradict its published studies.

LOS ANGELES – At a time when most people would be contemplating retirement, Don Friedman launched a new career: convincing the world that General Motors Corp. was misleading the public about the dangers of collapsing roofs in rollover crashes.

In the 15 years since, the 76-year-old Californian has become a powerful adversary to Detroit’s automakers in a series of trials that have cost the companies tens of millions of dollars.

In lawsuit after lawsuit, the former GM executive has been the plaintiff’s star expert witness, detailing his contention that weak roofs injure people in crashes.

While automakers have disputed that weak roofs cause death and serious injury – and have fought changes to the 33-year-old federal roof-strength standard – juries have usually sided with Friedman.

Friedman has teamed with trial attorneys and other experts to help plaintiffs win at least 10 jury verdicts in roof-crush cases. He can recall losing four. Most cases are settled out of court.

"The underlying basis of my testimony is the manufacturers’ own information," he said. "I use their own data against them."

The pace of lawsuits going to trial is accelerating. Four are scheduled for trial in the coming months, including a suit brought by relatives of former Kansas City Chiefs star linebacker Derrick Thomas, who died from injuries suffered in a 2001 rollover crash.

Friedman’s crusade began almost by accident.

In 1989, as Friedman analyzed data from some rollover tests GM conducted on Malibu sedans, he decided the data contradicted the automaker’s conclusions.

"I became incensed," he said.

Friedman says the Malibu data, published in 1990, clearly show more severe injuries in rollovers in sedans with regular production roofs than vehicles with roofs reinforced by roll cages. In its published study, GM researchers said the tests showed injuries resulted from dummies diving into the roofs before they crushed.

At the time, Friedman was nearing the end of a distinguished career. In the 1950s, he developed the infrared guidance system of the sidewinder missile. In the 1960s, he was head of the land operations department at GM’s California research lab, working on electric powertrains and the Apollo program’s lunar rover. In the 1970s and 1980s, Friedman ran his own company, Minicars Inc., to help the government explore technologies, like the first air bags.

Key witness

Friedman began working as an expert witness in court cases in 1986 when government auto safety research funding dried up.

His passion about roof strength goes beyond the courtroom. Since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked the public for comments on roof strength in November 2001, Friedman has filed 12 separate submissions.

In March, Friedman, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, met with NHTSA administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge and senior agency staff to present data on roof-crush injuries.

GM has called Friedman’s arguments "junk science." It strongly disputed Friedman’s contention that head and neck injuries can result from the velocity of metal intruding into the passenger cabin as a weak roof buckles.

"It is obvious to even first-year college physics students that "Friedman’s Physics" are absolutely wrong," wrote Robert Lange, GM’s executive director of structure and safety integration, in August 2002 comments to the NHTSA.

GM also challenged Friedman in court during the trial of Penny Shipler, a Nebraska woman paralyzed in a rollover accident, for discussing information on the witness stand that was under a protective order as a trade secret. The court fined Friedman $10,000.

Friedman’s impact on roof-crush litigation first became apparent in the landmark case of Robbie Lambert, a 19-year-old hockey star who had made the Olympic training team in 1990.

That same year, Lambert fell asleep at the wheel of a Chevy Blazer near Needles, Calif., while driving on a country highway at 70 mph. The SUV rolled three times, and the roof caved in over Lambert’s seat. He awoke a quadriplegic.

Lambert’s attorney argued the Blazer’s roof was weak and defective. GM said the vehicle met federal safety standards, and Lambert broke his neck through the force of his body falling into the roof.

A jury sided with Lambert in 1996, saying GM’s roof design was 50 percent responsible for his injuries. GM won an appeal, forcing a new trial. A second jury deemed GM 60 percent at fault in 2001, awarding Lambert $15 million out of $25.7 million.

"I thought it was like a tank," Lambert said of the Blazer he was driving. "I found out otherwise."

Friedman, whose firm charges $400 per hour, was a witness in both Lambert trials.

Powerful team

The Lambert trial marked the first teaming of Friedman with two other important players in the world of roof-crush litigation – Michael Piuze, a Los Angeles trial lawyer, and researcher Paula Lawlor.

Piuze has won four roof-crush verdicts against Detroit automakers, utilizing Friedman and Lawlor’s research.

"They came up with some new stuff that made the second Lambert trial not even remotely close to the first one," he said. "It became a test case for the way roof-crush cases will be conducted."

Piuze contends the research showed GM was saying one thing in internal memos and another to the public and federal regulators.

For example, GM documents show that the company considered a strong roof a basic safety element in the 1950s and 1960s, but engineers had a hard time making roofs strong enough to meet their goals.

When the government proposed the first roof-strength regulation in 1971, GM found in internal tests that its vehicles were failing the proposed standard. Instead of redesigning its vehicles, Piuze said, GM came up with a test its cars could pass. That test later was adopted by the government and is still in use today.

For Robbie Lambert, life has become a little easier. GM appealed the second verdict, but all appeals were exhausted last year. He is richer, and has moved with his wife, Tarrah, and baby daughter, Kamea, out of a mobile home and into a multimillion-dollar house in Los Angeles.

Lambert will never hold his daughter, but Kamea often climbs on his feet at the bottom of his wheelchair and gives his legs a hug. Sometimes, she climbs on the chair to go for a ride.

"We’re finding ways of making it work with what we’ve got," Lambert said.