The Post's July 13 editorial laments the "incredible sum" awarded by a jury in punitive damages -- $4.9 billion -- to Patricia Anderson, her four children and a sixth passenger in the Anderson car. The car, a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, exploded in flames when struck from behind. One of the children had a hand burned off and her ears burned down to the bone. She has had, so far, 70 operations. A younger sister has had 60 surgeries. Internal memos show that General Motors refused to spend less than $12 per car to make the fuel tanks safer.
The Post complains that "ever-growing damage awards do more than . . . send a message to manufacturers about the need to make safe products," and that this invites litigation. Well, you can't put a company in jail. About all that are left are punitive damages, usually assessed to get a recalcitrant company's attention. GM has shown that it is willing to sacrifice customers' lives for the bottom line and take whatever monetary penalties may result as an acceptable cost in return for higher profits.
The Post suggests the award is too high because it's "greater than the GDP of a small country." That's irrelevant. GM's revenue is greater than the GDP of some not-so-small countries such as Norway, Egypt, South Africa, Poland, Chile and Saudi Arabia. This is a company that can flick away even a $1 billion fine -- that would, after all, amount to only one-half of one percent of its annual revenue.
The Post says that "the award makes the tort system into a kind of lottery in which clever trial lawyers and a few victims get very rich at the cost of society's confidence in the justice system." But GM's policies make their vehicles into a brutal lottery in which stockholders and executives get rich at the cost of victims such as Patricia Anderson and her children.
We'll continue to have exploding automobiles, unsafe workplaces, sweatshops, toxic pollution and waste until corporations are made to put the public interest over private profit.
The writer is the director of the nonprofit Stakeholder Alliance.