A federal court jury here yesterday ordered General Motors to pay $6.5 million to a Southeast Washington couple as damages for a 1975 car accident that left the woman paralyzed from the neck down.
The auto maker was liable in the case, the jury found, because a key joint snapped on the 1975 Buick Electra that Georgia Hall was driving on Sept. 29, 1975, sending her and the car careering down an embankment on the Suitland Parkway and smashing into a tree.
The 52-year-old woman spent eight months in a hospital after the accident. Since then, she has been confined to her bed or a wheelchair and has to be assisted like a newborn baby, according to testimony in the case and an unusual 20-minute film depicting her life as an invalid that was shown to the jury yesterday.
The woman's 42-year-old husband, Edward Hall, was ebullient when the jury announced its award after deliberating just 35 minutes.
"I'm shocked, overjubilant," said Hall, who once was a D.C. cab driver but has cared for his wife on a virtual 24-hour-a-day schedule since the accident.
Hall, who sleeps in two-hour stretches at night so that he can get up and adjust his wife's limp body to make her more comfortable, said his wife exclaimed, "Oh, my God!" when he told her of the verdict, one of the largest ever awarded here or elsewhere.
After listening to two weeks of testimony in late April and early May and returning this week to hear more testimony on the amount of the damages, the six-member jury determined that GM was liable for damages in the case.
GM lawyer Aubrey M. Daniel III said the car manufacturer disputes the findings that the drive shaft assembly on the Electra was defective and will appeal the verdict.
The Halls, represented by lawyer Sol L. Margolis and Allan L. Kamerow, earlier settled a claim for damages against Larry Buick, the Arlington car dealer that sold them the car. While the Halls' lawyers declined to say how much that out-of-court settlement ammounted to, a court source to, a court source and Larry Buick, said it was about $700,000.
If the $6.5 million judgment is upheld, the $700,000would eventually be subtracted and GM would then be liable for $5.8 million.
Margolis and Kamerov refused to say how much their share of the award would be. However, court sources said that lawyers in Washington routinely receive one-third of personal damage awards, meaning that the lawyers would get $2,167,000.
In his closing argument, Margolis said that the cost of past medical bills and other care for Mrs Hall as well as for her future medical and household care over the next 25 years, amounts to nearly $1.8 million.
He asked the jury for a $10 million overall award for Mrs. Hall and $2 mllion for her husband. The jury awarded $5 million to Mrs Hall and $1.5 million to her husband.
Mrs. Hall testified on Tuesday from a wheelchair as her husband held a portable microphone in of her. In a whispered voice she told the jury that she has not improved since the accident.
The film, narrated from the witness stand by her husband, showed the life a quadriplegic in gripping terms.
"Here I'm attaching a leg bag to the catheter and the urine goes into this bag here," Hall said as the film showed him assisting his wife. The film also showed Hall bathing his wife, helping her get dressed, hoisting her in a net and then into her wheel-chair, brushing her teeth, helping feed her and helping other men place her on a stretcher for an ambulance ride to a hospital for twice-a-year check-ups.
Margolis, in an emotional closing argument to the jury, said that "Nobody, nobody would take all the money in the world and trade places with Georgia Hall."
He then asked the jurors to put themselves in Mrs. Hall's place, saying, "You jump out of bed and take a shower and start the day. Can you imagine when the highlight of every day is being hoisted out of bed?"
Margoilis said that Hall was entitled to damages because the had "lost his wifem his lover, his friend, his playmate."
Daniel told the jury that he did not know what a "fair and reasonbale" damage amount should be, other than to say that the requested $12 million "would be too much."
GM contended that the accident was due to the "driver error" and not the fault of the broken rear universal joint, the connection between the drive shaft and rear axle.
But the Hall's lawyers successfully argued at the liability portion of the trial that the joint broke and sent the car out of control as Mrs. Hall was driving to the bank at noontime on a clear day.
No similar defects have been found in other 1975 Buick Electras, according to the Hall's lawyers and Daniel. CAPTION: Picture, Georgia and Edward Hall reflect their pleasure at the award by a jury. By Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post