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Crash Victim Settle with GM: Oregon Changed its Law to Allow Suit on Saddle Fuel

Detroit Free Press | January 17, 1997

Anne Kirkwood still bears scars from a 1994 crash in which she nearly burned to death. But she said Thursday that she had settled her $250-million lawsuit against one of the world's biggest industrial corporations. Neither she nor GM would reveal terms of the settlement.

"I feel very much elated, very happy. I'm glad, of course, that it's over," Kirkwood said in a telephone interview. "I do feel, with the grace of God, we had a good victory . . . I hope we taught GM a lesson."

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people sue automakers every year, but not the way Kirkwood sued GM. She first managed to overturn an Oregon law that barred such a suit.

Now, Kirkwood, 68, of Madras, Ore., and her lawyers are barred by court order from revealing how much GM agreed to pay her for injuries she suffered when her Buick LaSabre was hit by a 1976 Chevy pickup with a sidesaddle gas tank.

In the crash and resulting fire, Kirkwood lost a leg, her 10-year-old granddaughter was killed, and her 6-year-old grandson was injured. "There's nothing worse than losing a child. I'd give it all to have her back," Kirkwood said. "Hopefully, what GM will pay will be enough to take care of my medical bills, and I'll have many. I've had 17 or 18 surgeries, and still have many more to go. My face was totally burned away, I lost sight in my left eye. And my right leg had to be amputated."

Her attorney, Lawrence Baron, said Kirkwood had spent 450 of the 900 days since the collision in the hospital or undergoing other medical treatment.

Kirkwood's settlement came after a lengthy battle that rallied friends and residents of the bantam town of Madras in a lobbying battle in the state legislature.

It was led by her daughter, Annette Hausinger, who rallied church members and friends of Kirkwood, who had worked as a grocery clerk and secretary at Warm Springs Indian Reservation. They held raffles and bingo games to raise money.

Their effort ended with the legislature bypassing a law prohibiting liability lawsuits on products older than eight years. Lawmakers did not repeal the law, but passed another making an exception for pickup trucks with sidesaddle gas tanks.

But Kirkwood's fight wasn't over. Her attorney said GM filed more than 60 motions trying to block Kirkwood's lawsuit.

"It cannot bring her granddaughter back, but Anne can at least feel some justice has been done," Baron said.

GM declined to comment on the settlement. "We're barred from doing so by the court," GM spokesman Kyle Johnson said.

On Aug. 14, 1994, Kirkwood's car collided with a Chevy C/K pickup on U.S. Highway 97 near Redmond in rural central Oregon. The tanks on the pickup, which on some models had been mounted outside the vehicle frame rails, exploded, sending a fireball through Kirkwood's car.

Two men who witnessed the crash pried the car door open and cut Kirkwood out of her seat belt, saving her and her grandson. Kirkwood said the boy continues to recover.

The controversial sidesaddle gas tanks were used in the Chevy C/K from 1973 to 1987. Lawsuits across the country have blamed the gas tank design for anywhere from 120 to 1,000 deaths. But federal highway traffic safety officials closed their investigation into the pickups without finding a defect.

What's life for Kirkwood been like since the accident?

"I've had many people tell me I've got a good outlook, lots of guts and fortitude, and I do have," she said. "I've always been very self-reliant, and I have deep-seeded religious beliefs. I've had that to fall back on.

" . . . Everyone in this small town has pitched in with support and prayers. That's been a real shot in the arm. Even if I wanted to lean back and give it all up, I couldn't."