The Georgia Supreme Court last week handed down an opinion upholding a $40 million verdict against Chrysler Group LLC (now known as FCA US LLC) resulting from the death of a four-year-old in a 1999 Jeep that burst into flames following a rear-end collision. The plaintiffs argued that a rear-mounted gas tank was negligently designed and ruptured because of the collision.
The case was tried in 2015. Generally, cases arising from products liability claims are required to be filed within 10 years of the date of sale of the vehicle under Georgia's product liability statute of repose. But under Official Code of Georgia, Annotated (O.C.G.A.) § 51-1-11, the 10-year limitation period does not apply where the product manufacturer's actions showed "a willful, reckless, or wanton disregard for life or property." In this case, the Supreme Court noted that the evidence showed that Chrysler was aware that the design of the vehicle was dangerous and that the placement was contrary to industry standards, and therefore the limitation period did not apply.
At trial, the Bainbridge, Georgia (Decatur County) jury awarded $150 million to the plaintiffs (the parents of the child): $120 million for the full value of his life, and $30 million for his pain and suffering. The plaintiffs agreed following trial to reduce the verdict to $40 million. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court had improperly allowed the plaintiff to introduce evidence of the income of Fiat Chrysler's CEO (approximately $60 million) at trial. At the trial court, the defense argued that this information should be excluded because of a pretrial evidentiary ruling that the wealth of the parties was inadmissible. The Georgia Court of Appeals, after trial and before the Supreme Court's ruling, held that the judgment should be upheld because the CEO's level of compensation was relevant to his bias, which is admissible under Georgia law as provided by O.C.G.A. § 24-6-622 of Georgia's "new" Evidence Code, which has been in effect since 2013. The Supreme Court reached the same outcome, but for a different reason.
The Supreme Court declined to issue a broad ruling that evidence of a testifying employee's compensation was always admissible or not admissible, instead opining that the rule could differ in different factual circumstances. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that the old Georgia evidence rule prohibiting evidence of the wealth of a party was subsumed within the new Evidence Code, particularly Rules 401, 402, and 403 (O.C.G.A. §§ 24-4-401, -402, and -403). Although agreeing that compensation evidence could be allowed under O.C.G.A. § 24-6-622 to show bias, the admission of that evidence is still subject to the requirements of Rule 403, which states that
Relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.
Although Chrysler had mentioned Rule 403 previously, it had not argued it specifically with respect to the prejudice raised by the purported introduction of the CEO's salary. Therefore, because the issue was not argued before the trial court, the Supreme Court considered whether any alleged error by the trial court in admitting the evidence rose to the level of being so unfairly prejudicial that it required a retrial. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that, at least under the facts of the case, it did not, and affirmed the verdict. The court cautioned, however (including in two concurrences), that evidence of compensation was not always, or perhaps even normally, proper. The case is a significant, perhaps landmark, decision regarding interpretation of the 2013 Georgia Evidence Code and the proper role of evidence of bias at trial.