Testimony begins in suit over crash with 2-ton Blazer Injured plaintiff blames vehicle's suspension 'lift kit'


When county paramedic Matthew Kelly arrived at an accident scene on a snow-covered road in Simpsonville in December 1989, he found a young woman slumped over in her car, unconscious and bleeding from her nose and left ear.

The roof of the car, a Chevrolet Sprint, had caved in and the pillar supporting the roof appeared to have struck the driver in her head, Lieutenant Kelly said.

"She was moaning and making incomprehensible sounds, nothing you could understand," he said.

Across the road sat the vehicle that collided with her compact car -- a 2-ton Chevrolet Blazer equipped with a "lift kit" that jacked up its suspension by about four inches. Its driver and passenger were not injured.

Mr. Kelly was the first of more than 70 witnesses expected to testify during a trial that began Wednesday in Howard Circuit Court stemming from the Dec. 8, 1989, accident.

The case was brought by Stephanie Gianfagna, the driver of the small Chevrolet, and her mother, Margaret Pendelton, of the 6800 block of Pyramid Road in Columbia. Ms. Gianfagna, 21 at the time of the crash, is paralyzed and unable to speak as a result of a head injury, said Henry Dugan, one of three attorneys for the woman and her mother.

They are seeking $83 million in compensatory and punitive damages from five defendants, all accused of negligence for permitting an unsafe vehicle to operate on the roads.

The defendants include Jeffrey Allen Wetzel, a Woodbine man who was driving the Blazer, and J. A. Toyota Inc., operators of Antwerpen's Toyota Village, the Clarksville dealership where Mr. Wetzel bought the vehicle.

The suit also names Rugged Trail Inc. and Eastern Off-Road Equipment Inc., two Pennsylvania companies that manufactured and sold the lift kit.

The other defendant is Bruce Wayne Stonestreet, of Rockville, who first owned the Blazer, installed the lift kit, then traded the vehicle in at the Toyota dealership.

The story begins long before Dec. 8, 1989," Mr. Dugan told the jury. "This accident was caused not just by the actors who were there at the scene."

In the accident, Ms. Gianfagna was headed up a hill on Guilford Road, near Cedar Lane, during a storm, Mr. Dugan said. Mr. Wetzel was traveling down the hill and lost control of his Blazer. The vehicle slid into the oncoming lane, striking Ms. Gianfagna's car.

Because the Blazer had been jacked up with a lift kit, its chassis glided over the front end of Ms. Gianfagna's car and struck the passenger compartment, Mr. Dugan said.

The attorney contends that the kit made the Blazer unsafe for driving on roads, particularly in bad weather, because of the altered suspension, brake system and steering mechanism.

The attorney charged that Rugged Trail and Eastern Off-Road sold the kits without conducting engineering studies to determine their safety.

He noted that the vehicle's service manual advised against installing lift kits because they alter valves in the vehicle's brake system. A study ordered by the Specialty Equipment Manufacturing Association found that the kits hamper a vehicle's steering and braking abilities during an emergency, Mr. Dugan said.

"The alterations should have never taken place on this vehicle," Mr. Dugan said.

But S. Todd Willson, the attorney for Rugged Trail and Eastern Off-Road, said his clients are not responsible for the accident. He shifted the blame to Mr. Wetzel, who had installed four old tires -- including two bald ones -- and sold the new tires that came with the vehicle.

Mr. Wetzel did not activate the Blazer's four-wheel-drive system before the accident, despite the snowy conditions, Mr. Willson said. The driver also chose to take a shortcut on his way home, instead of taking a longer but safer route.

"The accident was simply caused by Mr. Wetzel, who was in too much of a hurry and went down that hill," Mr. Willson said. "The lift kits have nothing to do with this accident."

Mr. Willson said he will show a videotaped re-enactment of the accident using a Blazer without a lift kit. The tape will show that the test vehicle also slid into the oncoming lane of traffic, he said.

Attorneys for the defendants said they will respond to the plaintiffs' charges as the case proceeds.

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