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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
Attorney • (877) 377-7848

Trapped By Negligence; Trapped By The System

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A 45-year-old, single mother of four who was trapped inside her 2009 Chevrolet Malibu for nearly a week after the vehicle plummeted hundreds of feet off a Colorado road, is suing General Motors over alleged defects that she says contributed to the crash. After going off the side of the mountain, Kristin Hopkins Malibu tumbled one hundred feet down an embankment and ended up in ravine. She was trapped in the overturned car for six days without water or food except for a packet of instant oatmeal. During her ordeal, Hopkins endured temperatures well below freezing. Her feet were crushed beyond repair and her ribs were fractured. She managed to write messages pleading for help on a red-and-white umbrella, which she stuck out of her car’s window. She was discovered on May 4 after a couple driving by notice some glare and called authorities. Doctors told Hopkins that she only had about eight more hours to live when she was found. She suffered severe dehydration, a traumatic brain injury, and lost both her legs below the knee; she is learning how to walk with her prosthetic legs, even driving again but her journey to recovery continues. Hopkins says that thinking about her four children gave her the will to live.

She has filed a lawsuit claiming that the car’s electronic stability control “failed to engage,” the car’s electronic power steering suddenly “gave out,” and the panic braking assist failed during the April 27, 2014 incident. Additionally, the lawsuit claims that based on documents GM provided the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM knew about the malfunctions six years before Hopkins’ crash. The lawsuit also states the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu is General Motors’ most recalled vehicle of all time.

Hopkins says she received a recall letter from GM about two months after her accident; a second letter came weeks ago. “My life is completely changed because of all this,” said Hopkins, who hasn’t been able to work since the crash. “Could I have changed what happened? No. Could GM have changed what happened? Yes.

You may recall GMs high-profile legal troubles over its defective ignition switches last year in which evidence emerged that the automaker knew about the problem for a decade before finally issuing a recall. Here we go again, with GM acting “too big to care” and putting profits ahead of safety. GM will pay dearly in court, right? A large corporation can’t get away with this type of behavior, right? The courtroom is the great equalizer, where David fights his battles on equal footing with Goliath, isn’t it? Fear of large damages awards are a significant deterrence to safety violations, aren’t they? The answers to these four questions, at least in Colorado (and other “tort reformed” states) are “no”, “yes, it can”, “it used to be”, and “not anymore.”

In Colorado, punitive damages (damages meant to punish the perpetrator for serious misbehavior) are capped at the amount of the victim’s actual damages award, even when a multi-billion dollar company, like GM, is found intentionally negligent. Colorado also limits non-economic damages (pain and suffering) at $250,000 (with inflation adjustments, and some discretion by a judge to increase the amount up to $500,000). The cap applies to all cases, no matter the extent of the misconduct by the wrongdoer or the severity of an injuries; no matter the verdict size from a Colorado jury, after hearing all of the evidence.

A capped punitive damage award – even one totaling $500,000 – may sound like a lot of money to you, unless you are the victim and the perpetrator’s conduct is outrageous. And, it is a minuscule result to the GM’s of the country, creating no financial incentive for safety. Billions are made in vehicle sales profits; would it be too much to ask to appropriately compensate the customers GM fails? Damage caps send a message that it is more cost-effective to pay victims and their families for any injuries or deaths caused by defective products than to design a safe product in the first place, or recall millions of vehicles to correct known defects when appropriate. When the wrongdoer is let “off the hook” and the victim is under compensated, where does the victim turn for support? If you guessed “the taxpayers”, you are correct. Social Security, the Medicare/Medicaid system, private health insurance, entitlement programs, all play a role in paying amounts when GM, in this instance, should be responsible. In the end, everyone loses, except the wrongdoer.

The court system exists to afford justice to those who are wronged by the negligence and/or recklessness of others. Tort reform and damages restrictions may sound good until you are the one who is wronged. A familiar American aphorism is “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” We, the people, are being fooled and robbed, over and over again. Isn’t it time for the legal rights of average citizens to be made equal to those enjoyed by the rich and powerful businesses and insurance companies? That is how the legal system was meant to be; it was designed to be the great equalizer until politics and profits got in the way. Shame on them; shame on us for letting them get away with it.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.