Prior to trial, Joye Law Firm, successfully reached on behalf of its client, John Whitehead, as the administrator of the estate of Frances Whitehead, his deceased wife, a large settlement of a case against General Motors Corporation and an at-fault driver. (Note: To protect their identity, our client’s names have been changed for this article.) In December of 2002, Mrs. Whitehead purchased a 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer thinking it was safe based on advertising in General Motors Corporation’s brochures as to the vehicle’s over-all strength and durability and the local dealer sales representative’s representations that the vehicle had over-head roof protection, which the Whiteheads understood to mean that it had a well-supported roof.

In January of 2003, Mrs. Whitehead was returning to the dealership to retrieve an extra key. Her elderly mother was seated in the right front passenger seat and her grandson was seated in the right rear passenger seat. Mrs. Whitehead was maintaining a proper lookout and all passengers were properly belted. As Mrs. Whitehead continued down the highway, another vehicle pulled out from an intersection and hit Mrs. Whitehead’s vehicle in the right rear quarter panel.

Mrs. Whitehead lost control of the vehicle and it went down into the median. As the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer was coming up out of the median, it began to roll. The vehicle rolled three times across the opposite side of Mrs. Whitehead’s original lane of travel before finally coming to rest. The roof on Mrs. Whitehead’s side of the vehicle massively crushed down more than 18 inches to the level of being below the headrest of the vehicle. Mrs. Whitehead, who was only four feet and nine inches tall, received fatal head injuries as a result of the extensive roof crush on the driver’s side of the vehicle. The passengers on the right side of the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer, where there was no roof crush, walked away from the accident with minimal injuries.

Mr. Whitehead’s life was shattered, as were those of Mrs. Whitehead’s three daughters and grandchildren. Instead of celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other family occasions, the Whitehead family had to adjust to life without Mrs. Whitehead, who served as the indispensable center of the family. In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead had legal custody of two of their grandchildren for whom Mrs. Whitehead cared. Aside from the tremendous loss of his life-long companion, Mr. Whitehead also suffered economic loss as a result of Mrs. Whitehead’s death. Mrs. Whitehead assisted Mr. Whitehead with certain aspects of his daily business operations and also operated a daycare out of their home.

A few months after the accident, Mr. Whitehead, who resides in North Carolina, turned to Joye Law Firm for assistance. Joye Law Firm shortly thereafter filed an action in North Carolina on behalf of the Whiteheads against General Motors Corporation and the atfault driver alleging that General Motors Corporation had defectively designed the roof of the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer by failing to sufficiently reinforce its roof so as to afford passengers like Mrs. Whitehead with any reasonable degree of protection. The lawsuit alleged that General Motors Corporation was aware of the dangers associated with roof crush and knowingly neglected to afford its consumers with protection from a known danger. While vehicle roll-overs do not account for a large number of accidents, they do account for a very large percentage of over-all fatalities. Joye Law Firm vigorously pursued this case, retaining numerous nationally known experts from across the country to assist in the preparation of this case for trial. These experts included an accident reconstructionist who visited the accident scene in North Carolina in order to recreate the accident sequence, a biomechanic to discern how the fatal injury occurred, an automotive design engineer who examined the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer for defects and then developed an alternative design to the existing roof which would have afforded Mrs. Whitehead with appropriate protection, and an economist to establish the economic loss to Mr. Whitehead due to Mrs. Whitehead’s death. Joye Law Firm also retained a former General Motors Corporation engineer who was prepared to testify that General Motors Corporation was aware that the roofs of its vehicles were weak when subjected to roll-overs. This expert would have testified at trial that rather than stringently testing its vehicles for their performance in reasonably foreseeable roll-over events, General Motors Corporation was subjecting its vehicles’ roofs to only minimal testing that has no correlation to injuries as a result of roof crush.

Joye Law Firm relentlessly pursued this case in North Carolina on behalf of the Whiteheads. There were numerous heated court battles in North Carolina over General Motors Corporation’s failure to produce documents that were necessary for the preparation of the case for trial. Depositions also took place in Arizona, California, Indiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Due to Joye Law Firm’s aggressive prosecution of this case to exhaustively prepare for trial, the case was able to be effectively resolved through mediation before the two-week trial of the case was scheduled to begin.

Mark C. Joye, who handled the case with the assistance of Amy B. Rothschild, stated, “For years, the danger of roof crush associated with roll-overs has been known to the automobile industry. Despite notice of this obvious hazard, especially as relates to sport utility vehicles, the automobile industry continues to ignore it even though roof strength could be improved at minimal cost. We are glad that we were able to assist Mr. Whitehead in achieving an adequate settlement by holding General Motors Corporation accountable for its actions.”

In addition to previous automotive product liability cases that have been litigated in California, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia, Joye Law Firm, and its product liability team comprised of three attorneys and a support staff, also have ongoing product liability cases in Florida and of course, South Carolina. Joye Law Firm’s present caseload includes a myriad of vehicle manufacturers and defects. Currently, Joye Law Firm is working on cases involving DaimlerChrysler Dodge Dakotas, Dodge Durangos, Freightliner tractor trucks, Plymouth minivans, Ford Motor Company Explorers and Mercury Marquises; and GMC Yukons. While these cases all involve crashworthiness, other specific defects at issue include fuel lines, handling and stability control, roll-over and roof crush, occupant restraint systems, door locking and latch systems, and window glazing.

About the Author

Mark Joye is the Head of the Litigation Department at the Joye Law Firm. A Board-Certified Trial Advocate with nearly 30 years of litigation experience, he currently serves on the Board of Governors for the American Association for Justice and is a past president of the South Carolina Association for Justice. In a recent trial, Joye headed a trial team that secured $17 million for a family killed in a tractor-trailer accident.

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