A debut novel offers the true account of a wrongful death suit filed against General Motors concerning a lethal car accident in the early 1990s.
Tragedy strikes the vacationing Murphys when they are visiting relatives in Virginia. While the family is stopped at a tollbooth in an Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser, a runaway trailer hits the station wagon’s bumper. The minor impact is enough to puncture the unprotected gas tank, which engulfs the vehicle in flames. Mike and Catherine Murphy and their daughter, Katie, as well as Mike’s cousin Jane Reilly are all severely burned. But Jane’s 21-year-old niece, Nancy Harris, and 13-year-old Matt Murphy do not survive. The Murphys then seek help from attorney Kelley in their home state of Florida. He files suit against GM, but it is a trial he watches later on Court TV that gives him direction. That trial involves a wrongful death suit against the car company and includes testimony from former GM engineer Ronald Elwell. He essentially claims that the company knew of faulty fuel tanks (in this case, a truck) and covered it up. GM subsequently backs the imposition of a gag order against Elwell, but Kelley is determined to prove the Oldsmobile likewise lacked an adequately shielded fuel tank. What follows are years of GM representatives evading answers in depositions and the company refusing to provide requested documentation. Kelley is convinced one item in particular will prove that GM implemented a value analysis, which weighed the cost of adding the gas-tank shields against the expense of individual deaths resulting from fuel-fed fires.
The novel, which Kelley wrote with Harrison, tells a riveting true story. Though the narrative predominantly relays facts from Kelley’s perspective, it still has flair. For example, it opens with the accident in Virginia, a harrowing description that the attorney derives from the family’s and fellow motorists’ eyewitness accounts. Unsurprisingly, GM comes across as the story’s villain. The tale sometimes depicts GM reps in an unflattering light, like the in-house lawyer who’s “blathering away on the witness stand” or the individual who’s “mousy-looking” with “small, dark eyes.” But GM’s actions are dubious on their own, like the company’s obvious stall tactics (for example, just prior to the deadline for requested drawings and blueprints, GM sends Kelley over 30,000 documents). The work adds a bit of anticipation for readers by teasing the titular memorandum, a damning piece of evidence that marks a turning point in the case. Even if readers foresee the document’s contents, the lawyer’s attempts to get his hands on it involve a rousing fight. But there’s humor as well: Kelley equates GM’s evasive responses with trying to retrieve answers from a 5-year-old child (“Did you eat the cookies?” “Cookies?”). The prose is smart but unadorned, and the story clearly explains uncommon legal terms, such as duces tecum, that most readers won’t likely know. Though the bulk of the book is the ongoing case, the attorney provides a glimpse into his personal life, including his divorce and an early introduction to John Uustal, his eventual law partner.
A well-written and engrossing tale of a real-life legal battle.