— General Motors has been hit with two lawsuits that accuse the automaker of designing and selling trucks with deadly side-saddle gas tanks prone to fires in side-impact crashes.
The lawsuits accuse GM of ignoring the dangers of installing gas tanks on the sides of model year 1973 to 1987 pickup trucks. Millions of trucks were manufactured with gas tanks on the side and located outside the frame with only the thin metal of the truck to protect the tanks.
According to research from the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), side-saddle gas tanks were installed on more than 10 million GM trucks between 1973 and 1987, with federal data showing over 2000 people killed in those trucks between 1973 and 2009. Those numbers put to shame the statistics gathered about fatalities in the flame-throwing Ford Pinto.
The lawsuits allege GM fully knew of the dangers from the beginning but didn't upgrade or recall the trucks for financial reasons. According to court documents, GM performed a "cost-benefit" study in 1973 about the cost of making changes to better protect the gas tanks, then ignored the results of the study. (Picture above right shows a red "impact shield" installed around the gas tank and tested in 1973.)
Edward Ivey, who conducted the cost-benefit analysis, said GM shouldn't upgrade the tanks if it cost more than $2.20 per truck. Ivey was later asked if there could be any locations on a truck more dangerous to install a gas tank than the side, Ivey responded by saying, "Well yes...You could put in on the front bumper."
According to CAS, GM knew within a year the 1973 trucks had more gas leaks from the tanks compared to GM trucks made before 1973. Additionally, a separate 1978 study indicated 19 percent of side impacts caused a high level of fuel to leak from the tanks. The 1978 study also concluded moving the tanks more toward the center of the trucks could possibly eliminate all future gas leaks in a crash.
After numerous fires from side-impact crashes, GM tested 22 pickups between 1981-1983 and found the side-saddle gas tanks "split like mellons." GM did eventually install a steel barrier around the gas tanks of model year 1978-1983 trucks, but those trucks were pickup trucks without beds, called cab chassis models. Any truck with a bed didn't receive the upgraded barrier for the side-saddle tanks.
In 1993, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked GM to recall over 6 million trucks with side-saddle gas tanks.
"GM's fuel tank system in the subject vehicles contains a defect that relates to motor vehicle safety and that GM should therefore initiate a recall of all full-size pick-up trucks and chassis cabs (through the 30/3500 series) sold with fuel tanks mounted outboard of the frame rails." - NHTSA
GM responded to NHTSA by saying the trucks were safe and no recall would be ordered.
In October 1994, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena decided the GM trucks were a safety hazard and accused GM of knowing that fact since the 1970s. Pena accused GM of putting profits before safety, but six weeks later he reversed his position in exchange for GM paying $51 million to safety programs. None of that money was to be used to upgrade the trucks.
The GM side-saddle gas tank lawsuits were filed in federal court in Atlanta, Ga., by Jim Butler of Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak LLP.