It was, quite literally, an accident waiting to happen. On June 5 of last year, a fleet of Saturn test cars was being driven down a hilly, rural road with more twists than a best-selling spy novel, when one inexplicably swerved into the opposite lane of traffic. It crashed into Joe King’s pickup truck, totaling his vehicle and sending him to the hospital.
Saturn, a General Motors subsidiary, never contacted him to pay for his medical expenses, much less make a call to apologize, King says. Now, with money running tight and medical bills stacking up, he is taking one of the richest companies in the world to Maury County Circuit Court.
“They ran into me,” says King, a carpenter and rock excavator. “They caused the accident.”
And there’s not much evidence to suggest otherwise. Although Saturn officials refused to comment on the pending litigation, a police report blames a Saturn car with right-side steering for “crossing the center of the roadway in a curve” and colliding head-on with King’s pickup. It does not cite any negligence on King’s part. In a police drawing of the accident, the Saturn is depicted careening into the wrong side of traffic and knocking the pickup off the public highway.
“They just flat ran over him,” says Willard Murphy, a volunteer fireman who arrived on the scene shortly after the crash. “There’s no doubt whose fault it is; the Saturn driver went way across the road.”
Saturn probably will employ high-priced legal counsel to help settle King’s lawsuit before it goes to court. But the company may face a harder go at it in the court of public opinion. Already, the troubled automaker, which is mired in a protracted car-sales slump, has angered Maury County locals by seeming to promise more jobs than it could deliver. But the company’s failure even to call King and apologize has angered many in the company’s headquarters of Spring Hilla hamlet used by Saturn in a nationwide ad campaign to trumpet small-town values of hard work, trust, and community. Those same small-town values, the ads proclaimed, helped make Saturn a “different kind of car company.”
“I’m not against Saturn, but no matter how big you are, you should make it right,” Murphy says. “They ran into Joe; that’s just all there is to it.”
The Saturn car was traveling in a pack of about six test cars down Les Robinson Roada tight, sloping, curvy street that frustrates even local drivers who know it well. The driver of the offending Saturn, incidentally, was from Utica, Mich. Residents say that in the past, Saturn test-drove new models on local roadsa practice that some decry as reckless and inappropriate.
King’s lawsuit, which names General Motors and Saturn Corp. as the main defendants, alleges that not one, but two test cars crossed the center line. First a white Saturn crossed the double-yellow line and swerved into his lane of traffic. King pulled his 1995 Dodge Ram onto the shoulder of the road to avoid a collision. Moments later, however, yet another white Saturn crossed the center line, this time striking King’s vehicle head-on right as he was driving it back onto the road.
“When we hit, I was dazed,” King recalls. “I thought I was dying. I was numb all over, especially my head.”
The people in the second Saturn car suffered life-threatening injuries. Driver Alfred Soulliere, also a named defendant in the suit, along with passenger Mark Gofton, were taken by LifeFlight medical helicopter to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. That night they were listed in critical but stable condition. After a few months of treatment and rehabilitation, the two returned to work.
An ambulance rushed King to Williamson County Medical Center, where he was soon released. But in the 11 months since the accident, King has experienced a range of chronic pains. The 50-year-old Spring Hill resident has trouble sitting and standing and has painful swelling in his chest. Objects he used to lift effortlessly with one hand he now struggles to pick up with two.
Since the accident, King has visited a psychologist. He often has vivid flashbacks of the two vehicles crashing into each other and has nightmares of frightening images of death and destruction. He’s taking anti-inflammatories and anti-depressants. Before the crash, King was making good money doing extensive carpentry work, along with digging up and selling rare slabs of limestone. Now feeble and continually in pain, he has been unable to find employment.
“My psychologist told me I have to change occupations, but my whole life I’ve always been able to do whatever I want[ed] to do,” King says. “Besides, who’s going to hire me to sit behind a desk and answer phones? I’m a carpenter, and I excavate rocks. That’s what I do.”
His lawyer, Mary Ann Reese, says King’s medical bills are about $6,000 each month. King’s wife Joann says that she and her husband “have been scraping bottom.” Even more troubling, she says, her husband is hardly the person he was just one year earlier. “He’s been really depressed,” she says. “He used to have two to three jobs at a time. He always stayed busy, and now he can’t. It’s been hard on him. It’s been hard on everyone.”
In his lawsuit filed earlier this month, King also alleges that the drivers in Saturn’s test pack were “exceeding safe speeds.” The police report, however, only cites the Saturn for crossing the center linenot for speeding. King is asking for more than $3 million in compensatory damages.
Michael Jolley, the state trooper at the scene of the crash, says the right-hand steering of the Saturn test car may have contributed to the collision.
“Troopers are supposed to be good drivers but I wouldn't want to be driving a car like that with steering on the right,” Jolley says. “I don' think he was driving fast but he didn't have a normal perspective.”
Saturn’s apparent display of arrogance after the crash may extend even to the company’s own recollection of the incident. In February, the company gave the GM Lifesaving Award to one of the test drivers for performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on his injured Saturn colleague. When he accepted the award, the test driver noted that every member of the driving team “did what was necessary.”
But Anna Marie Campbell, a Maury County nurse who was at the scene of the accident, says the other drivers didn’t do all that much. In fact, she was the one who took off her shirt to create a compress for one of the bleeding victims. “It’s not that I want the honor,” she says. “But I hate to see someone receive an award who didn’t do anything. Their drivers didn’t do anythingnot while I was there, and I got there right after it happened.”
Another question the Saturn crash raises is why the automaker was test-driving vehicles on local streets and not on a private track or testing facility. Campbell says that even before the accident she occasionally saw the company test-driving its vehicles on area roads. “It’s one after the other, and it’s two in a car,” she says. “It’s a convoy.”
Saturn officials would not answer questions about the company’s test-driving practices. In light of last year’s crash, however, the company might want to evaluate the practice.
“Whatever we have to do to get Saturn to change their policy of testing their vehicles in our rural community, we’d like to do that,” says Aubrey Preston, a community leader, businessman, and friend of King’s. “They’re out here testing their vehicles like a bunch of teenagers driving a new sports car. To send company engineers to test their vehicles on our windy, rural roadsthat to me is outrageous.”
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