General Motors Corp. said it will appeal a Los Angeles jury's unanimous $4.9 billion verdict - the largest award ever in a product liability lawsuit.
"This crash was not GM's fault, and we are disappointed the conduct of this trial did not let the jury fairly evaluate the claims," according to a written company statement. "This extremely severe crash was caused by a single factor: drunken driving."
Experts say an appeal will likely reduce the award.
Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, which tracks large verdicts, says it's rare for a plaintiff to get anything close to the jury's verdict.
Yale Law School Professor George Priest agrees. He says juries don't have a way of rationally figuring out punitive damages.
CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes reports the award will go to six burn victims who were scarred for life after their 1979 Chevrolet burst into flames after being rear-ended by a drunk driver. The family claimed GM knew that the car's gas tank was too close to the bumper and could explode on impact.
The huge verdict came after a 10-week Superior Court trial that focused on internal GM docments. A memo in which one of the company's engineers presented a cost analysis of human life versus the cost to fix the fuel tank problem was key in proving the automaker allegedly knew about the gas tanks.
The plaintiffs' lawyers say evidence shows GM knew about the risk of explosion for years, but was unwilling to pay for a recall.
Patricia Anderson, her four children, and family friend Jo Tigner were driving home from church on Christmas Eve in 1993 when a car travelling 50 mph struck them from behind. According to her lawyers, one eyewitness compared the explosion to a stunt from the television show, The A-Team.
"It's not so much the money issue," Anderson says. "It's just sending the message out to GM because there are other parties and families that might have or may go through the same thing I've been through."
The lawsuit was one of 100 such claims against GM for cars built between 1973 and 1983. In another, a jury ordered the company to pay $33 million after two passengers were killed in an explosive 1991 Florida crash.
The award includes $107 million in compensatory damages and $4.813 billion in punitive damages, meant solely to punish the automaker for its conduct.
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CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff