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This case was tried to verdict on two occasions, first in 1984 and then, following the granting of a motion for new trial, in 1986. Plaintiffs were represented by David M. Harney.

The case involved allegations of defective handling, suspension and fuel system designs. Plaintiffs claimed that the design of the rear suspension of the involved Volkswagen Van, which embodied the so-called “swing-axle,” was defective and made the van prone to roll over unexpectedly, when subjected to foreseeable highway evasive maneuvers. Additionally, plaintiffs contended that the fuel system was negligently designed because the vehicle contained no gas gauge, but rather was equipped with a reserve tank and selector switch, which was prone to clog and cause fuel starvation.

Plaintiffs alleged that as a result of the swing-axle, coupled with the vehicle’s high center of gravity and narrow and short wheel base, the van rolled over and a massive fire ensued. The four family members were severely burned, the worse of which was a young boy who suffered third degree burns over 80% of his body, with both hands virtually burned off. After a four week trial, the jury returned a verdict of $3,000,000.

The trial court granted a motion for new trial, vacating the verdict on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict, and that the jury was overcome by sympathy for the burned minor child who had been described by a leading burn surgeon as “the worst human being burn victim who ever survived.”

Upon retrial, the court ordered the matter bifurcated to prevent a “sympathy verdict” as occurred in the first trial. After a three and one-half week trial, a defense verdict was rendered by the jury.