$4.9 Billion Judgment Latest in GM Liability Saga

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

The $4.9 billion judgment against General Motors this month in a fuel-tank fire case is the latest chapter in a long saga involving independent counsel and former GM lawyer Kenneth Starr, accusations of perjury and obstruction of justice, and an infamous 1973 internal memo revealing that General Motors engineer Edward Ivey had placed the value of a human life at $200,000.

The record-settling judgment in the latest case centered on a California crash in which six people in a GM pickup truck were hit from behind by a drunk driver. The truck’s fuel tank exploded, seriously burning the occupants.

This is not the first time that memo has made headlines. Back in 1994, the now-familiar Kenneth Starr was representing GM in a suit brought by a South Carolina family whose two sons had been killed in a similar GM truck explosion. Starr has been accused of covering up perjury by Ivey. In April 1998, the Justice Department decided not to open an ethics probe into Starr’s role in the alleged coverup.

It is also important to note that, amid widespread agreement in the legal community that the California decision will be reduced by another court, General Motors is enjoying one of its biggest periods of growth and profit in history. On July 20, 1999, the company announced that it had record earnings in the second quarter of 1999, with a profit of $1.7 billion. At that rate, one could extrapolate that the company can afford to lose one major case a year related to fuel-tank fires and still make a few million in profit.

Read the original MoJo Wire story that uncovered the allegations against Starr, along with key documents and updates.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend