Paralyzed man sues GM, gains $9-million
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- It was early in the morning on Dec. 18, 1995, Carl D. Porritt's 31st birthday, as he and a friend returned from a fishing trip.
As his friend drove a 1995 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck on Gandy Boulevard, a drunken driver rammed the back of their vehicle. The pickup rolled over up to four times, throwing Porritt to the pavement and smashing his spine.
As paramedics worked to save his life, the injured St. Petersburg man looked up and said, "I don't know what happened. I had my seat belt on."
Late Wednesday, a Pinellas jury agreed.
A jury deliberated almost eight hours before finding the General Motors Corp. liable for a faulty seat belt latch in the pickup. Porritt, paralyzed from the middle of his chest down, was awarded more than $9-million in damages.
The award covers Porritt's medical expenses, past and future, as well as damages for his pain, suffering and lost capacity to enjoy life.
"I'm extremely pleased," Porritt, now 37, said after the eight-day trial in the civil lawsuit. "It really doesn't pay for the hell that I've been through. Nothing can."
Porritt's attorneys told jurors that the energy of the crash led the seat belt to unlatch as the truck rolled over. The driver's seat belt did not fail, and she was not thrown or seriously injured.
"The seat belt is the last defense for a drunk driver," said David Wiesenfeld, one of three Jacksonville attorneys representing Porritt. "That's what they're for. And this one failed."
But GM argued that Porritt was not wearing the seat belt. The company presented witnesses who examined the latch in the days after the crash, tested it repeatedly and found that it worked properly.
They also pointed to the driver, whose seat belt did not unlatch.
GM spokesman Jay Cooney said GM will appeal the verdict.
"We're extremely disappointed," he said. "The verdict isn't supported by the facts and the law. Mr. Porritt's injuries weren't caused by GM. They were caused by a drunk driver."
The intoxicated driver was charged with DUI involving serious injury, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 41/2 years in prison.
One fact jurors were never told about in the case against GM: The latch that Porritt alleged was faulty was inadvertently destroyed without Porritt's consent under the direction of the drunken driver's insurance company.
"The buckle was destroyed before we even knew about the case," said Cooney. "They're claiming a defect, and we don't even have the most important piece of evidence."
But Carl Dawson, another of Porritt's attorneys, said, "It was a two-edged sword. Neither one of us were able to get it. We would have liked to have seen it to prove it was defective."
Neither GM nor plaintiff's lawyers, led by attorney Fred Abbott, say the company has been subject to any other lawsuit alleging a similar fault on the S-10 pickup seat belts.
Porritt was an unemployed woodcarver at the time of the accident. He now lives in Owosso, Mich., with his fiancee. He said he has overcome a battle with depression, in addition to numerous physical ailments related to his paralysis.
He said his medical expenses come to about $20,000 annually, paid for with insurance.
"It's been hard," Porritt said. "All you can do after something like this is pick up what's left and go on."
Porritt said the hardest part of the trial was listening as GM attorneys told jurors he hadn't worn his seat belt. He said he habitually wore one.
Plaintiff's attorneys presented four witnesses who saw Porritt wearing the seat belt shortly before the accident.
"The seat belt held me until near the end of the crash," Porritt said. "It's not too bad of a belt. But I still have a fear of them."
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