Suzuki models' safety disputed

A TYPE of Suzuki four-wheel-drive vehicle involved in a series of roll-over accidents in Britain, in which two people were killed, was rejected as unsafe by the world's largest motor manufacturer, according to a court judgment in the United States.

Documents revealing that General Motors tested the Suzuki SJ410 but decided not to sell it in the US because of fears that it was unstable could affect a damages claim in the High Court in Britain.

The SJ410 was already on sale in Britain when it was tested by General Motors in 1982-83. Suzuki continued to sell both this and later models and has now sold more than 50,000 in Britain and over 1 million worldwide. Although built for cross-country travel they have become popular with town-dwellers.

The decision by General Motors has come to light in a US case where Suzuki is being sued by the victim of an accident in Georgia in which one of the vehicles turned over in a collision.

The evidence produced by lawyers acting for Fati Malautea, could affect a similar lawsuit in Britain where a woman left partially paralysed after a roll-over accident in Oxfordshire is claiming damages from the company.

Tracy Bishop, 22, of Thame, Oxfordshire, was driving her father's SJ410 in 1987 when it went out of a control on a bend and turned over into a ditch. Miss Bishop is suing Suzuki for damages, alleging that the company designed and built a dangerously unstable vehicle. Her lawyers also say that the SJ410 had an inadequate roll-bar. The claim should be heard in the High Court next year.

Miss Bishop can walk for short distances on crutches but still needs to use a wheelchair for longer journeys. She said: 'The accident has changed my life totally.'

Suzuki was fined by the US judge for trying to conceal evidence in the case. A default judgment was entered against the company which means that, unless its appeal against this is successful, all that remains is for a jury to decide what damages the plaintiff should be awarded.

The ruling by Judge S Avant Edenfield stated: 'It is clear that General Motors decided initially not to market the SJ410, or actually the improved model known as the SJ413, because of the perceived rollover problem and that at least by 1984 Suzuki was aware of GM's reason for this decision.

'This evidence clearly establishes that in the early 1980s GM discussed the possibility of marketing a Suzuki sports utility vehicle in the United States but abandoned this idea because of a perceived rollover problem.

'When the plaintiff asked Suzuki to provide information about these discussions, Suzuki deliberately withheld this information . . . The court simply does not find it credible that no one at Suzuki was aware of the communications between Suzuki and GM.

'The GM materials suggest that Suzuki was aware that the SJ410 had a propensity to roll over and that Suzuki knew that certain design changes were necessary to correct this problem.'

Suzuki disputes the judge's ruling. In a statement it said: 'Suzuki never offered the SJ410 to GM for sale in the continental United States. GM reviewed that vehicle as part of a larger discussion about developing a new vehicle with Suzuki for the United States market.

'Significantly, GM has never determined that either the SJ410, the Samurai or any other Suzuki vehicle is defective in any respect. GM did not, at any point, conduct dynamic tests on the SJ410 for rollover stability.'