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Gainesville jury awards $3.5 million in teen’s death

GM's vehicle design faulted

POSTED: June 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A Gainesville jury on Tuesday found General Motors negligent in a rollover crash that killed a 14-year-old boy, awarding what may be a record amount to the parents who brought a federal lawsuit against the auto maker.

Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds and his wife, Bonnie, were awarded $3.5 million in connection with the 2002 rollover accident that claimed the life of their son, Matthew. The Reynolds sued GM in 2006, alleging that the design of the 1995 Chevrolet Blazer created stability issues that contributed to the fatal wreck.

A jury of five men and three women deliberated for nearly three days in U.S. District Court in Gainesville before finding GM at fault.

Henry Garrard III, the Athens attorney who with Drew Hill represented the Reynolds during the 11-day trial, said his clients were pleased with the jury's verdict.

"They are pleased that a jury has shown that the vehicle was defective," he said. "The mother wanted the public to know this is not a safe vehicle."

The verdict was believed by local court observers to be one of the highest amounts ever awarded in a civil case tried in Gainesville.

Garrard declined to say what amount he asked the jury to award, but said his clients were satisfied.

"I think the jury has said to General Motors that your vehicle is an unsafe vehicle and it shouldn't have been designed without proper stability," Garrard said.

On June 3, 2002, Bonnie Reynolds was driving a 1995 Chevy Blazer on Interstate 985 near the Spout Springs Road exit with her son in the front seat when the Blazer was struck by a drunk driver who lost control of his Pontiac Sunbird.

The Blazer flipped several times and Matthew Reynolds was ejected. He died the following day in an area hospital.

The driver who struck the Reynolds' car, 40-year-old William Richard Merritt of Lawrenceville, was later convicted of first-degree vehicular homicide and is serving a lengthy prison sentence.

Garrard said he presented evidence at trial of other rollover accidents involving the Blazer. The plaintiffs contended that the make and model was built with too high a center of gravity for the wheel base, and that the "track," or distance between the wheels, should have been widened to prevent stability problems.
Garrard said Blazers manufactured from 1995 through 2002 have similar design flaws.

"Part of the evidence we presented is that they should do a recall," Garrard said.

General Motors maintains that the vehicle is safe.

Company spokeswoman Geri Lama said GM was disappointed in the jury's verdict.

"We do offer our condolences to the Reynolds family, but we're convinced the rollover accident is the sole fault of the drunk driver who struck the vehicle," Lama said.

Lama said that "GM is considering its options" of an appeal.



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