A Woodbridge woman who was injured two years ago during a fiery crash of her 1972 Chevrolet Vega, has settled a damage suit against General Motors Corp. for $3.1 million -- one of the largest out-of-court settlements ever reached in Northern Virginia.
Wanda Lee Poe, who was pregnant at the time, and her three children, sought $15 million in a suit against the auto maker but reached the settlement without going to trial. Poe charged that her injuries were caused by a faulty design of the small car's fuel tank.
Prince William Circuit Judge H. Selwyn Smith, who approved the settlement, said under it Poe and her children will receive monthly payments from a fund as long as she lives.
"If she lives long enough," said Smith, "she could get a heck of a lot more than $3.1 million. I've seen other cases with more severe injuries where the people have settled for less money, but to my knowledge this is one of the largest [settlements] I've heard of."
Smith said that he considered the award, $3 million of which will come from GM, "very, very fair." The remainder of the settlement will come from an insurance fund covering the teen-age driver of a car that rammed into the rear of Poe's car, court officials said.
The accident occurred in June 1979 when Poe, who was 7 1/2 months pregnant, and her two small children were stopped behind traffic on a Woodbridge road. Her Vega burst into flames when it was hit by a car driven by Wendall Fisher of Woodbridge, according to court papers.
Poe suffered third-degree burns over 55 percent of her body and the two children were less severely injured. The third child was later delivered without incident.
Fisher was on his way home from a high school graduation celebration at the time and was traveling at "a fairly high rate of speed," according to Judge Smith.
GM stopped making the Vega in July 1977, according to GM spokesman Clifford Merriott. He declined to comment on the settlement or the question of the Vega's safety, saying the company's decision to discontinue the model had nothing to do with several lawsuits that have been filed over the car's design.
B.J. Campbell, director of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center and an expert on automobile litigation, said yesterday that "multimillion dollar awards in post-crash fire litigation is still the exception rather than the rule."
He said incidents of such accidents "haven't changed dramatically over the years," despite design improvements that have been mandated by the federal government. "There is only a 3,000-to-1 chance" that a driver will be involved in a post-crash fire, he said.